Interview with Ken Chu, Co-Founder, Godzilla

Posted September 10, 2010 by Anonymous
Alexandra Chang, Director of Public Programs and Research Manager, A/P/A Institute, NYU
Interview Date: 
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Person Interviewed: 
Ken Chu
Place of Interview: 
New York, NY


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Ken Chu on March 12, 2009. The interview took place New York City, and was conducted by Alexandra Chang. This interview was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Ken Chu and Alexandra Chang have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Screenshot of Ken Chu

ALEXANDRA CHANG: I thought that we could start to talk about Godzilla a little bit before the actual creation of Godzilla, and find out what you were doing. You came from San Francisco and then what you were doing before then— 

KEN CHU: Oh, my God, way back then? We’re not going to have that much time. [they laugh] 

CHANG: Just like how you met Bing, how you met Margo and the Tuesday lunch club kind of thing. But what you were doing before the actual— you know, getting together and talking, even talking about creating Godzilla. 

CHU: Okay, well that doesn’t start in San Francisco. I can start in New York. 

CHANG: Great. [they laugh] Excellent. 

CHU: I was dumped by this boyfriend. [they laugh] 

CHANG: Who will remain nameless. 

CHU: Nameless, and unforgiven. No, I started attending ACT UP meetings because of that. [he laughs] 

CHANG: Oh, okay. 

CHU: As a therapy and to kind of be with the community and other folks and just kind of keep my mind off the current situation. And ACT UP was just kind of amazing because there you kind of witness this whole process of democracy happening, and that’s what fascinated me every week and kept me going back. There were just people who were there who just kind of, like was able to just stand up and make these elegant arguments and to speak eloquently about everything that they were passionate about. And so something—for somebody who was 1.5 generation who came to the States and had to learn the language and the culture, it was just something that just amazed me because it was something that I could have never done at that point of my life. 

CHANG: And you had traveled a lot, right? Because— 

CHU: Yeah, I’ve traveled a lot around the world. But I’ve never been that comfortable in the American culture, and then to be able to speak publicly like that and to make such strong points, and to kind of be able to kind of map out your arguments in that way. And also it was a place where everybody had a voice and it was heard. Some of these meetings just dragged on for hours. And the high points were just really worth it, you know? It was just great theater. So— And then also I had joined a group called APICHA, (as well as) Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York. And so that was kind of like a support group for gay APIs. And, it was a place to meet a lot of the guys in the communities— community. And then I was also active in— I’m trying to think; what is that other— I’m thinking all these minority communities that I’m part of. So I just went around, just found these groups that I can— that can help me become more comfortable with myself and adjust to the greater society. Oh, I was working at the New York City Commission on Human Rights at the time, at the HIV/AIDS Discrimination Division. And because of that, I was introduced to a group called APICHA. Asian Pacific Islanders Concerned About HIV/AIDS. That’s what it was— I think it was the original title of the group. I think once it got formalized, some of the words changed in there. I don’t know what exactly APICHA stands for now. Anyway, so I’m thinking, Okay, this— all these aspects of myself is like being cared for in these social situations, except for myself as an artist. And when I came to New York from San Francisco, I was working in films. And on one of the sets, I met— Actually, Laura Lee, Bing’s wife, had brought me on as her assistant in the costume department. And so we were just chatting, and I told her my interest was actually in set design because I was a painter, also at the time. She said, “Well, you should meet my husband. And he’s the set designer for this film and he needs help, too.” So she was very generous and moved me over to t he set department, and that’s where I met Bing. And we worked together. And he was just a great guy, very generous and very open. And once we found out that mutually, we were both interested in arts and stuff, he told me about the Asian American Arts Centre and the residency program that they had over there. So I applied and got in that year with another artist, Sokhi Wagner, who’s just a brilliant— does brilliant work. So two of us were the artists-in-residence at the Centre. And that’s where I met Margo. She came over— contacted me, came over to the studio to visit and there was a— In our research as artists, there was a lot of common grounds. And so she put me in my first show in New York, which… 

CHANG: I think it was— 

CHU: At the Arts Centre— 

CHANG: Yeah, it was at the Arts Centre and it was kind of— Oh, I have it; it’s in the book. But… 

CHU: Yeah, it’s embarrassing. 

CHANG: …it was investigating identity. 

CHU: Right, yeah. I just paused because I can’t remember the title of the show. I’m so embarrassed. [he laughs] 

CHANG: I know, there are so many shows! 

CHU: But it was a great show. I mean, not because my work was in it, but because she was just— I mean, she placed me with, like these other brilliant artists like— Was it Y. David Chung, from Washington, D.C.; and a beautiful painter who’s a Japanese American painter (Susan Suzuki). And I don’t think she continued in the arts or something. Anyway, I kind of lost track of her career. But they’re just these very fluid, narrative paintings about being— or growing up Japanese American. 

CHANG: So at that time, I mean, all three of you, were you talking about art and identity at that time? 

CHU: Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. I mean, that’s how I just— how I met these individuals. 

CHANG: Just how you met, okay. 

CHU: So anyway, back to my activist work and all that. So I realized— started thinking— Oh, I’d also kind of heard and read about other Asian American artists in the field who have been advocating for inclusion with the museums, the galleries, and with artists spaces and stuff like that. So because of my work in ACT UP, one of the things I realized that happens with people who kind of work individually is there’s usually a fast burnout rate. And that’s really my main concern with you, right now, Alexandra. [they laugh] You are like a one- person collective. And it’s— [they laugh]. 

CHANG: It’s research. It’s all good. 

CHU: You need to step back a little bit. [they laugh] So yeah, that was one of my main concerns because I realized there aren’t going to be, I mean, that many of us that’s going to feel that passionate about the community. And it’s really important that we come together and be a support system for each other. So that’s how the idea of Godzilla kind of— Or actually, a group came to mind. And I thought, Well, who do I know, who can I contact? And I knew Bing and his level of energy, and where his energy’s focusing on. Because he’s also been active in past kind of Asian-based collectives and stuff like that. And also he was employed at the Arts Centre at the time, so he has this administrative background. And then I thought of Margo, because she knew all these people who was of a different level; kind of more of the arts professionals. Whereas Bing is— Actually, it was really critical because Bing, for me, had an in with the immigrant population in New York. And our community, that’s like— at that time was like 70% of immigrant status. So, that was a really important population to include. And then Margo was kind of more in with the American born Asians, and also the arts professionals who were working at the museum levels and stuff like that. She was very busy. She was also involved with lots of women’s collectives. So anyway, I thought that would make a great balance. At least for me to have a conversation with them to see if this is— if anybody’s interested, if they were interested, and if it was feasible— 

CHANG: Was there any talk ever about, Oh, will this be able to gel? Because there are American born and there are artists from Asia. Because would they stay in their groups, or would they be able to interact and that sort of thing? Was there concern at all for that or—? 

CHU: No, that wasn’t part of the conversation. I mean, I think just having the mind to kind of include both populations. I mean, that was kind of good at that point. I mean, there wasn’t— I’m sure once you get to a critical mass, people tend to break off into their little cliques and groups, and then they have all these — Their needs to be addressed. I mean, that’s basically what happened in ACT UP. And that’s why, in a way, it fell apart. We had the people of color coalition and this and that and… 

CHANG: I see. 

CHU: …everybody just started coming to the meetings and started bickering. [they laugh; he whispers:] Because we are homosexuals. [they laugh] And so it eventually just kind of— The meeting still happens on Monday night, but it’s certainly not at the scale that it was at one point, where there’s like 2,000 people who show up on a Monday night. And we moved the ACT UP meetings from the Gay and Lesbian Center over to the Great Hall at Cooper Union because we had to be able to accommodate all that many people. 

CHANG: Oh, wow. 

CHU: So anyway, I approached Bing and Margo. And I remember it was, August. It was probably August of ’89 or something, because Margo had just gotten out of the hospital so we all went to her loft. Because also she had air conditioning in her room. [they laugh] 

CHANG: That’s great. 

CHU: That was really important. And so we just kind of started there, and just chat and kind of like, Let’s put a list of goals of what is it we want, what would we like to— how we would envision this organization, and what are some of the things we’d like to see happening in the art world. 

CHANG: So was that the meeting with you, Bing and Margo? 

CHU: Yeah. 

CHANG: And was that a meeting that you had specifically planned to talk about creating a group? Or was it like you knew you wanted to do something, weren’t sure yet, and you were, like hashing it out. 

CHU: Yeah, we weren’t sure yet. I wanted to— I thought it was important that we all meet together and just kind of put our cards on the table and see if we were on the same page, first of all. So that was— And we thought, Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Because they have a history in New York, so they know the community more than I did. They said— Well, you know, I don’t remember exactly what we did. Like, we kind of wrote out our goals. And then I think we met again and we just then decided who we can bring on to broaden the group. And I think one of the things that I thought was important, that whoever we brought on must have administrative background, some kind of working with— in a formal setting. Just because it didn’t— anybody can have an idea, and we’re not here to— 

CHANG: Give ideas only? 

CHU: To give i— or to kind of do whatever other people want to be done. You know? 

CHANG: [inaudible] 

CHU: I was interested in having people who were going to be able to do the nitty-gritty themselves. 

CHANG: So did you give invites to certain people for the first official meeting kind of thing? 

CHU: I don’t think it was an official invite. I mean, we just— basically, Bing and Margo just called a few people they thought would be good at this second-level meeting. Not a second level, but — 

CHANG: Yeah. As it grew. 

CHU: As it grew. Because they knew the people, they knew the history of all these people, they knew, — And they knew people who were from Basement and things like that, which I didn’t have. 

CHANG: So initially, did you think, oh, we should definitely have writers and we should definitely have curators, as well within the group? 

CHU: Pretty much. I mean, because Margo was really interested in seeing a body of critical writings be produced. I was kind of interested in museum— But mo— I mean, that was like, my fantasy vision. But I was really interested in the generation of artists that preceded us, the ones from the fifties and the sixties, who— I mean, there was no written material on any of these people. I happened to know about them because I had— One of my best friends in San Francisco was from that generation, an Abstract Expressionist artist. And we— 

CHANG: What’s his name? 

CHU: Win Ng, who worked in ceramics. But he eventually kind of moved away from that career and got into design. He and his partner at the time, Spaulding Taylor, created a business, Taylor and Ng, that kind of brought kitchenware into vogue. 

CHANG: Oh, wow. 

CHU: Yeah. Kind of trendy, modern, affordable stuff. And also, at GAPIMNY, I met one of the elderly gentlemen there. Or actually, he actually approached me afterwards, because we were kind of sharing our lives and our interests and stuff in these group meetings. And then he, like quietly said “I’m an artist and my name is Herbert Lum and I do”— And I said, “What kind of work do you do?” And he said, “I paint.” I said, “What kind—” So I found out he does Minimalist work, and that he actually was of Win’s generation. There was a gallery in New York in the fifties that— Again, that name escapes me. But it was run by Asian Asians. And to show pretty exclusively just Asian American and Asian artists. Contemporary artists. The last I heard, one of the owners of that gallery actually has been working at the Metropolitan Museum in, like the Chinese Ceramic department or something. Yeah. So I don’t even know if he’s— 

CHANG: Still around, yeah. 

CHU: Still around. So anyway, I think Herbert showed with them, and then Win had a show with them. And I actually did— I went up to Herbert’s place—he was on the Upper East Side at the time, a little tiny apartment— just to look at his work. They were these, like tubular forms on white canvases. And then he showed me this piece, a ceramic piece that he had bought from the gallery at the time, and it was Win’s piece! One of Win’s early works. So that was really touching. [he laughs] And so we chatted some more and he said, “Well, there’s another artist that’s still around in New York.” And he said, “The guy’s name is Dale Joe.” So I just went to the phone book and looked up the Dale Joe. He said Dale Joe, and he was on Bond Street somewhere. So I looked up Dale Joe on Bond Street, and just called in cold and introduced myself on the phone, and got invited over for tea or whatever. And that’s how my friendship with Dale started. And Dale was on Bond Street. He was an Abstract Expressionist art painter. Large canvas pieces, very cloudy work. And he had great stories. I mean, he was—Dale was selected by the Whitney Museum before they had biennials. And I guess, like every year or every two years, they would select a group of young artists and give them a group show and stuff like that. And so Dale was actually one of these artists that was selected by the Whitney at the time. He was also like a Fulbright scho— a fellow. 

CHANG: Did you invite them to be part of Godzilla? Or was this something you wanted to work on within Godzilla? 

CHU: Oh. Yeah, I wanted him to come to Godzilla and participate in Godzilla. But the thing is, once you kind of start a group like that, people just assume that you’re kind of of a militant stance on things. 

CHANG: Oh, really? 

CHU: Yeah. And that was actually something that we kind of kept tugging amongst ourselves in the membership, because I know there were— People kept saying, “Well, you can’t deny the politics in here.” And I said, “Well, yes, I know we can’t deny it, but we don’t have to forefront it.” Because it was really about openness and about all these— having these people feel comfortable coming to the meetings, if they choose. And I think we were good— I thought it was good that we kind of stayed as neutral as possible. 

CHANG: So as slowly it grew, right?, From the initial twelve or thirteen people. There was that photograph of— [she laughs] 

CHU: No, that… 

CHANG: You were missing some people in the photograph? 

CHU: Yeah, there were some— I mean, I don’t even remember how large the initial group was. I mean, I know there was three of us, and then it just kind of kept doubling each time. 

CHANG: When did it start to grow to the point that you had to have it in other places, because it was too large? 

CHU: Well, actually, pretty early. Even by the second or third meeting, we were meeting at the— Oh, what is it called? There’s that arts council in Brooklyn. 

CHANG: Oh, yeah. BRIC— Rotunda Gallery? 

CHU: Not Rotunda, it was a— It wasn’t a gallery, it was the office. And they had a meeting room. So we would just get permission and meet there. And that was when Yong Soon (Min) came. We invited Mo Bahc, but he didn’t want to get involved with another group because he had this whole history of working with groups and stuff. And I think that’s when I met Tomie, I mean, just all these people just— Yeah. 

CHANG: So when did it start that you invited artists to present or do slide slams, that sort of thing? Did that come out of group meetings? 

CHU: That was kind of later. I mean, there was also that whole history of getting the name Godzilla. 

CHANG: Right, how did that happen? 

CHU: Which wasn’t an easy thing, you know? 

CHANG: When did that happen? [she laughs] 

CHU: I don’t even remember when that happened. 

CHANG: Was it before it was announced that there was going to be a group? Or did it shift? 

CHU: No, I mean, I think that it was sometime— the same time Karen Higa came on board. I mean, there was just all these people. And I don’t know why we had to—I guess at some point, we had to come up with a name. So I just kind of thought about it and thought — I mean, part of it was like, How do you market a collective? The trend at the time was to have acronyms. Every organization that came out at that point was an acronym. Yu know, blah-blah-blah-blah. And I said, “Well, that’s obviously not the route to take because we’re just going to get lost in that mix. And so then I thought, What’s a strong pop culture identity of— that has an Asian lineage? And I thought, Well, Godzilla would be pretty well known and people would recognize that. And then there was, like— It took three meetings to kind of get that passed, because there was a lot of resistance against that. First of all, it was kind of Japanese-based. So people didn’t want that. I said, “Well, you really have to look at the film.” Because the film isn’t what the cult people see it as, as some kind of a campy Japanese film. It really was a very poignant film about how— like the country, United States, you have this power, with the atomic bomb and stuff. It’s really critical for you to understand that power and how to utilize it, or not to utilize it. And that’s really what that film is about. And I said, “And I think it kind of represents like who we are as a people. People kind of see us, Asian; they just make these assumptions as who we are. They don’t really take the time to kind of hear or to understand who we are as Americans and as a human.” And I thought, Well, that’s a kind of good metaphor. And then one of the artists said, “Well, there’s the word God in it and that’s, like—” [they laugh] Oh, my God! I said, “Well, the Japanese don’t really say Godzilla. I mean, it’s just the way we Romanized it.” 

CHANG: The name. 

CHU: Yeah. 

CHANG: But then, you do have the “Asian American Art Network” appended. So— 

CHU: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because it’s not just God. I mean, we’re not just like, trying to promote the movie. So it was — So we kind of attached that on. And so we finally got it approved—maybe by, like, one vote or something. [they laugh] Real narrow. Yeah. 

CHANG: Bing was saying, of course, like the network part was very important. 

CHU: Yeah. 

CHANG: But for you, too, you were mentioning how, when you went out, then you would be able to kind of know these people that were already established in the art world. But now you would know who they are. 

CHU: Right, right, right. Yeah. I mean, a network— it’s really important for artists who weren’t educated here, who didn’t belong to any groups or [have] any access to communities and stuff like that, professional communities. I think it’s necessary. I mean, there has to be some way for you to kind of connect. That’s how artists get shows and that’s how curators learn about artists. Because you kind of — artists recommend artists. I think a good example is like Skowhegan. You have all these people going up there for the summer, and they make all these connections and then when they come back to the city, these are the people that are going to see each other at the galleries and speak to each other, and they’re going to know each other’s work, they’re going to recommend— these are the artists they’re going to recommend to the curators who come to visit your studio and stuff like that. So that’s kind of how it works. 

CHANG: So how did it become that the programming actually happened that you had, say curators come and talk, or you had certain artists who were in town to speak and that sort of thing? When did that start? 

CHU: I think a lot of stuff was actually membership driven. I mean, just the fact that—even the choice of not applying for a 501(c)(3). I mean, that was kind of membership driven. Really, once we kind of put the idea of a group out there, it really was basically listening to them and kind of going with what they felt was important. 

CHANG: So would different members completely decide to say, “Oh, well, this person is here let’s do this,” and then other people would just kind of like join, that sort of thing? 

CHU: Yeah. I mean, that kind of evolved nat— I mean it’s like we kind of did that and then we figured out— 

CHANG: Through the committees, right? 

CHU: Then we’d kind of look at current issues that—the whole thing with the— Well, the other thing is that once we kind of came out with this, decided on the name of Godzilla, basically, the press just jumped on it. I mean, it was like… We were just kind of doing these little group meetings. We had the few curators that were in the group, we would invite them and… 

CHANG: Were there agendas made? 

CHU: Yeah. And then we thought, Well, here’s a topic that we can have them talk about. And then somebody knew these other people, and they were interested in this area or this is their field of studies or focus, and then we’d bring them in and they’d make presentations. And at first, it was at people’s apartments, and then it just got too crowded, and so we started looking at different spaces. And because we’re not formalized, we could— we just— Within the membership people knew different people who worked at different spaces, so they’d just ask for permission for us to meet there. And that’s how these groups learned about us, and that’s how we learned about — meet the staff of all these different organizations and stuff like that. And then, also around that time I think the Voice did an article on collectives, and suddenly we were in this article about— They were citing Guerrilla Girls and Gran Fury and all these other folks. And then they mentioned, oh, Godzilla, which— I mean, we had a very different mission, but we got included in there. And so of course that expanded the membership because [laughs] people who read it said, “Oh, maybe it’s okay to be Asian-identified now.” [they laugh] So yeah, a lot of people started coming and the group just kind of kept growing. And then about that same time the Biennial thing was happening. And Paul Pfeiffer was doing a bit of research for his master’s program up at Hunter, so he compiled this information about the history of Asian American artists in the Whitney Biennial, and kind of gave us the stats. And then there was a committee that was formed to address this issue. So, that’s I think about—Eugenie was on board and Margo were, I think, the two heads of that committee. And so they’d just draft a letter. And then I just kind of tagged on at the end, the (page long) cc. Because that was a tactic we used in ACT UP. I said— [he laughs] 

CHANG: So who were the types of different people that you did cc? 

CHU: Well, I mean, there’s the list in the newsletter; I don’t remember. But really, basically, it’s a lot of museum curators, all the alternative art spaces—because they’ve all had a history of showing Asian American artists—art critics, art writers, art historians, art educators. And this is just from the membership, at that point. I mean, these are just people that they personally knew, that we felt comfortable about including their name on it. 

CHANG: And why was it so important that there was that cc-ing? I mean, that was a strategy of yours. 

CHU: Yeah. Yeah, from ACT UP. Because otherwise we just, like everything else, can be easily ignored. And this way — I mean, people knew this letter existed and then if there’s no response then [he laughs] there’s no response. But then the writers got—I mean, especially the weekly publications and stuff—has a choice of whether to pursue this or not. So— 

CHANG: Were you part of the group that met David later on or—? There was a meeting and there were, I believe, twelve artists suggested to him? 

CHU: Oh, yes. Yes, yes. Yes, I was real shy and, I don’t know why today[?], I was resisting. [they laugh] I can barely speak, to you all without stumbling through— over my words and stuff…and now you want to drag me to this meeting with this really important man. [they laugh] 

CHANG: Oh, fantastic. So out of that, I mean, do you feel that there was change? 

CHU: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it was this remarkable change. I mean, really, just to have their curators come and do studio visits. I mean, basic, really simple stuff. We’re not saying— we’re not demanding that we be included in the show or anything, but just kind of simple courtesy that you extend to our peers. We would like to see that within our numbers. 

CHANG: So I was wondering when the newsletter came about. How that came about, too. 

CHU: Yeah, the newsletter was— has always been an element. And that’s when somebody brought in Chuck Yuen to design it. And I kept insisting that we don’t use the Godzilla image, because we’re not there to promote Toho Studios. [Chang laughs] And then, there’s all this stuff. I was thinking of maybe in the future, that we’d want to keep using the name; I don’t want to have any issues with Toho Studios. So Chuck came out with this really beautiful design of just the eye. And we used that for the longest time. And… 

CHANG: How did you think about the newsletter? I mean, was it decided who would actually participate in that? Or was it kind of open for anyone who wanted to write? 

CHU: Oh, it’s really— I’m sure that— I think we formed a newsletter committee, and then everybody would just recommend writers and— Or kind of have to pull people in to write an article or something. 

CHANG: It seemed really quite organized for a group. [Chu laughs] I mean, everybody’s like, Oh, we just kind of came and did and this. But there were committees, you know? And things got done. 

CHU: Well, I think the committees just kind of happened later. But first you have to do the newsletter and then realize, Oh—I thought I can’t do this by myself, we’ve got to do this— have somebody else take the responsibility. Because I’m trying to like administer and coordinate, and making sure that things, the everyday things are being done. I’m trying to get the newsletters out and labeled and to the post office and all that stuff. 

CHANG: And so there were issues, of course, at the time that were perhaps much more highlighted than they are now, such as with the NEA and Jesse Helms, you know, questioning awards that [they] were giving out to people like Mel Chin and that discussion. But also multiculturalism, the whole aspect of who could— how to curate, in quotes, an “Asian American group.” Later on, people said it was more kind of a dated thing to curate Asian American group shows. But when that transition occurred were you talking about that within the membership? 

CHU: Oh, yeah, they were. [he laughs]. Oh, yeah. I’m just making sure that everybody had enough to eat. [they laugh] Yeah, I mean anything that came, that surfaced was immediately at the next meeting. This whole debate about standards became a hot topic. And there were panels being organized around there[?]. And then I remember there was a panel organized in response to the panel that was org— that was kind of broadly— Because it was just so, I don’t know, so great. I mean, just all so interesting. Because the first panel we brought together about standards included a lot of art writers and art critics. And it, strangely, just turned out to be a bunch that just kind of hated us and the community. [they laugh]. And I thought, Well, it’s good to hear where— your stance. And so there was another panel that was organized in response to that, that was more positive and all that. So it was just great. 

CHANG: How many meetings were there a month, or events? 

CHU: I think there was like one general meeting a month. And then we had formed a steering committee, and the steering committee would meet more, probably an extra time a month. And those are always fun. I mean it was like—Eugenie would host it at her and Tom’s place, and we’d just have the food and— And some of the people were— It was just like pulling teeth to get them to come to the meeting and— [he laughs] Whereas other people would just—I always looked forward to it, because it was just so great to listen to people talk and— 

CHANG: So I was wondering when it was decided to have the Curio Shop? When did you decide that there should be an exhibition? And how did that come about? 

CHU: Well, the members wanted shows. And basically, whatever they wanted, I said, “Fine. You can have whatever you want, just— you have to organize it. You just have to do it. You have to set the premise, you have to figure out how to select the artists.” And I think the first few shows were just open shows, so anybody could participate. And there were—not all the shows were— I think there was some kind of Mail Art show or something at some point, I don’t know. I mean, because not all the shows were actually in spaces and mounted in spaces and things like that. But the membership pulled it together. People volunteered to be on this committee, and they had experience in putting together shows and— Like Skomon, who had experience in mounting shows. And then people had experience in putting together publications around shows. And so it was just kind of this— like Mickey and Judy thing. Like, Oh, wow, we’ve got a barn! Let’s put on a show! [they laugh] 

CHANG: So how was the show received? You know, being an open show and a really large show. 

CHU: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, with basically very little curatorial vision. But it was great. I mean, that was kind of reflective of the energy at the time. And it was just wonderful to eventually have a lot of artists who kind of resisted showing up, coming to Godzilla meetings and stuff, to actually participate. These artists had, like— are from specific schools of aesthetics. And that’s— that’s what they do well. And then to relax that, to come in and relax enough to include different types of contents in their work was just brilliant. They were just brilliant pieces. And then for the rest of us to know—to kind of see, coming in from the other end, where there’s like, maybe too much content in our work and not enough aesthetic sensibility or something, to see how you can actually start letting go some of the specificness of the issue, and then to look at how art can interact with politics. 

CHANG: I was wondering about the Urban Encounters show, as well because you did a lot of research for the timeline for that. What was the basic idea for participating in Urban Encounters and doing the Yellow Pearl II as well? 

CHU: You know what? You have to pose that question to later members. I was myself, and then I could say pretty much the first steering committee, we were pretty active for the first three years. And then of course, then the burnout thing happened. 

CHANG: Oh, what do you mean? Was it just like there was a lot of work going on? I mean, were you— 

CHU: Yeah, there was a lot of work that needed to be done and basically, I wasn’t interested in… 

CHANG: You had to build a career, too. 

CHU: …yeah, continuing to do this work. And I kept saying, “Yeah, we need to like look at forming the second generation of the steering committee and such-and-such and to let the new people come in and shape the organization.” 

CHANG: So that was really conscious of you. Did you have those discussions and really help form that second generation? Because there does seem to be another wave with artists like Athena Robles and Skowmon Hastanan. 

CHU: Yeah, no. Yeah, yeah. There was a second wave, there was a third wave. But unfortunately, no, I wasn’t very good at the baton handing. [Chang laughs] I just basically dropped it and said, “Well, if you want this to continue…you all do it.” [they laugh] 

CHANG: But like what was going on with your life at the time? Because this is what’s really interesting is— I mean, Godzilla’s huge, right? So I’m sure you’re spending a lot of time doing that. But then you also have your own career that’s going off, too. And also you were curating. You curated that show Dismantling Invisibilities, as well. 

CHU: Yeah. Well, actually, a lot of that stuff happened before Godzilla. I mean, the impetus for these projects happened before Godzilla, and it just kind of coincided around the same time we launched Godzilla. So it really didn’t— I mean, that didn’t have anything to do with Godzilla. And also the Tuesday lunch thing didn’t have anything to do with Godzilla, really. I mean, it’s just, like— Bing and I were working at—were both at the (Arts) Centre, so whoever was downtown, we would just call and have lunch with. And mostly, it was a guy thing. Although I tried to kind of… 

CHANG: I heard there was a good chef on Tuesday. 

CHU: …bring the women—yeah—the women to come down. But the women weren’t downtown, so— [they laugh] 

CHANG: Interesting. So— 

CHU: But yeah. So there was that thing happening, and there was the— Was it like Brownsville? There was that boycott of the Korean markets in Brooklyn. And that was also— pre-dated Godzilla. 

CHANG: And what was that? 

CHU: There was some incident in a market, where— I think when the Caribbean Americans felt slighted by the employees. And then it just erupted into a riot because of that. So the Korean artists were very concerned. And I don’t know how they chose me, but they wound up asking if I would organize some— basically be the front man for them. Because they didn’t speak the language or were able to— they weren’t very comfortable in navigating the culture. And I said, “Okay.” 

CHANG: So you were doing a lot of activism. 

CHU: Yeah. 

CHANG: And then of course, activism and curating, too, as well as doing Godzilla. So it was like many different things that you were doing at the same time. 

CHU: Yeah, it was all like simultaneously happening. Yeah, and then I had— And then also at some point, I guess I submitted a proposal for a show at Art in General. And that was the Dismantling Invisibility. So that was like— I have to remember that none of that actually were Godzilla shows, but they just kind of happened— came about around the same time that Godzilla was around, stuff like that. But… 

CHANG: That’s interesting. And also Art in General seemed to have an interesting relationship with Godzilla members, at least. I mean, and that you did have meetings there. But also they held the slides, the archive of the slides? 

CHU: Yeah, event— at some point, one of the later generations— I think because there were so many people that were employed over there, that they just kind of start— Because,— And we had it at the (Asian American Arts) Alliance and then somehow— I don’t know, the Alliance was moving again or something, so we just wound up— everything just kind of wound up at Art in General for a while. 

CHANG: So— but for the shows that you did have, and for all these activities that you did have, I mean, how was it funded, then? Because if you weren’t a 501(c)(3), were you able to get funding? Or was it mostly membership, really, donating money? 

CHU: No, we— Even though we don’t have a 501(c)(3), we were registered as a charitable organization, which, thanks to— Karen Higa got us that far. So we were able to accept donations. And also we worked with the spaces in fundraising to help with the grant and grant writing, stuff like that. And mostly, it was kind of their project. I mean, their responsibility was securing the funding and stuff like that. So that’s—of course, the artists contributed everything, the labor as well as the work. 

CHANG: Can you explain what the Zilly Award was? 

CHU: I don’t know. [they laugh] 

CHANG: You got one. 

CHU: I don’t think I got one, because I was— 

CHANG: I read it in the newsletter. 

CHU: Really? 

CHANG: Yes. 

CHU: Oh, okay. [they laugh] I was just—like we were doing these dinners and potluck and stuff, which— And I thought, Well, there’s these informal gatherings. And I thought, It’ll be fun to kind of— to cite specific members who really just show an outstanding commitment to the organization, going beyond the call for duty. Is that the right expression? 

CHANG: Yes. 

CHU: Yeah, okay. So I just bought a whole bag of these plastic Godzillas and sprayed them with spray mount and stuck them in a bag of glitter and— [they laugh] And then at the dinners, I would just publicly present these awards to people. 

CHANG: So you were having these dinners alongside the meetings you were having, as well, monthly? 

CHU: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They were just like social events. I mean, some people come and they want— They’re just there for the social events so we— Yeah. So they organized the social events, so of course, we have to attend those, too. Yeah, everybody was organizing something, [he laughs] so we were just like a family that was like always going from space to space to space, yeah. 

CHANG: So you were mentioning how there was burnout— And there seems to be like a few waves of Godzilla. But you were really able to see the whole thing. And I was wondering what made it different at the end, when you decided that maybe it’s time to let Godzookie exist, rather than Godzilla. What thoughts were going through your head for that? And also, what made it different at that time than the other waves that still allowed for Godzilla to continue? 

CHU: I just felt that with Godzilla, we actually achieved a lot more than we set out to do, in a much shorter time than we anticipated. So— [he laughs] and for me, it’s really important that the organization represents the needs of the membership. So at a certain point, we were just kind taking—addressing every issue that came on. And it was—people learn how to do it. You come in with some kind of— In one instance, there was— At that time, there were a lot of artists from China who were street artists and doing portrait drawings on the streets and stuff. And one artist who’s been a long-time resident in New York—called himself Billy Harlem—was murdered in Times Square. So things like that, something, and we’d feel like, Oh, we need to address this. So Bing and Hongtu, Zhang Hongtu—because he’s also from China—were kind of closer to that group of artists. So I proposed that we introduce that group of artists to Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, CAAAV, which is like some of the people I was working with on other projects and stuff like that, to look at this issue of safety in the streets for the artists. And so the artists were saying, Yeah, we’re on the streets and the police harass us instead of protect us and stuff like that. So what CAAAV did was propose to do a training with the police department about — what these artists are, that they’re human and they’re here in the United States so they’re protected and the police’s job is to protect them. So, anything that came up, we just did. 

CHANG: Did people come to you, then, to speak for the Asian American community, that sort of thing? 

CHU: Oh, and that’s the other thing. There was, like no one speaker. I felt that it was important that everybody was able to— As long as they stay informed about what we’re doing, what the issues are and how we’re— or our take on the issues, they can speak. I mean, this way, it’s not like this traditional idea that there’s like one person representing an organization. And definitely, I don’t want a male to be out there spearheading this organization again. So I thought it was really important to train— well, women, but also a lot of the Pacific Islanders and other Asians to speak out. 

CHANG: Was that a concern that came up, that Pacific Islanders were really included? Because I did notice in the mission statement, it kind of changed— By the end, it had changed and there was an addition of Pacific Islanders to the mission statement within Godzilla. And I thought that was interesting. 

CHU: If I remember correctly, I tried to make sure Pacific Islanders were included very early on. 

CHANG: Oh, okay. Alright. 

CHU: Yeah, yeah. Because people— Because sometimes people just get lazy and then drop that part of it. And then I always make sure that at least in the written text, that whole thing was kind of spelled out. We had members from, like Central Asia. I mean, it was just amazing, all these artists came out and Asian-identified. We had mixed-culture Asian. It was just like, Wow! [he laughs] 

CHANG: Great. 

CHU: Yeah. 

CHANG: And I was also wondering about your goals in Godzilla. I mean, you’re saying that these initiatives that you had hoped to have were realized. I was wondering what some of the things were happening. Perhaps like some folks’ careers taking off, but also that you felt like documentation was happening, that sort of thing. 

CHU: Oh, yeah. That was the point of that whole other thing that I went off the tangent on. Yeah, I mean, we—really, that whole conversation with the Whitney was, like, Oh, okay. [he laughs] It was like, That’s pretty fast, you know? Like, within the first year or so. And then to have Asian Pacific Islander curators being included in the mainstream organizations. Also to have Asian Pacific Islander curators embrace being Asian or Pacific Islander, and was not afraid to work with members of the community, about our work and our styles and stuff like that. So it just— I mean, it just broke down a lot of barriers and I thought it was a good place, a safe place for a lot of people to come and just be Asian. Just be in a room where you don’t have to explain yourself. Everybody under—there’s an understanding of where we’re all coming from, where you can like be Americans. [he laughs] 

CHANG: Were there criticisms, though, of Godzilla? Of having a group that was specifically Asian American? Like did people think, Why do you need this? We’re all artists, that sort of thing. 

CHU: There’s always that criticism. I mean, from day one, there was that critique. But, hey, I mean, you’re not stepping over to our studio to look at our stuff. Let’s find out why. [he laughs] 

CHANG: Yeah. 

CHU: Oh, yeah, and then we did the slide slam, which was great. I don’t know where that idea came out of. But it was just like— The first one we did, everybody had to submit three slides and you had three minutes, and that was it. And the curators love it because you don’t have to engage [they laugh] with everybody at the time. And you got to see a lot of stuff. And then they took notes on whoever they were interested in, they can always call later at the studios. And also whenever we hear about artists passing through town, we could just approach them and invite them to come and do a presentation. And that’s— 

CHANG: Who were some? 

CHU: Well, Mel Chin was one of them. And he was just really just— He’s got that Southern-ness about him. He’s such a sweetheart. Like, Wow. [he laughs] And David Medalla, who was passing through, I invited him to come and speak. But I invited Yoko Ono and Maya Lin and all those people. And they were just like, “No, no, no.” [he laughs] 

CHANG: But you also invited curators. I read that you had invited curators to kind of de-mystify the whole process of curation to artists. 

CHU: Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I don’t remember. I mean, we— Whatever, really. Just everything that was thought of, we just kind of went and did. Yeah. I mean, because of the membership, we could call. We knew somebody who could call somebody who could come in and just address all that. 

CHANG: So I’m just wondering what you felt survived of Godzilla beyond Godzilla. For you, what was the legacy for you personally? For your career and your thoughts and what not. But also, just in general for the art field,? What did Godzilla do? 

CHU: I think Godzilla helped relax the issues around race, for people to be inclusive of Asian Pacific Islanders, to consider us as peers. I think that’s the most important. And I thought we achieved that pretty well. So that’s why towards the end, I just didn’t feel like Godzilla was really a viable group anymore. It wasn’t current. And I thought the leadership needed to assess what the needs are, and then to either move forward with Godzilla or to form a group that’s going to be more reflective of the times. I think it’s really important for any organization to re-examine their missions every five years if not— At least every five years. But s, every ten years or so. So, I thought it was time to let go and move on. 

CHANG: Did it affect your own work, whether the content— or I know that some of the artists really loved this idea of connecting and dialoguing, and so that affected their work, too. 

CHU: Yeah. 

CHANG: Just being in a group. But for you, did you find that to by anything that kind of rubbed off on your work?

CHU: Yeah, it helped me look at my work. And actually, to take a step back and to see what I was really doing with my work, and to move away from kind of object making, and to recognize that much of my work is about community building and working with groups of people and stuff like that. So, I moved into site-specific installations. And some of the more current work is like more participatory with the public. And then to see my work in arts and philanthropy to really be an extension of my artwork— looking at communities of people and then how to bring them together and then everybody move— learn how to move our careers forward and things like that. 

CHANG: Excellent. So actually, those are all the questions that I have for you, but I was wondering if there was something that you would like to add to this that you felt that I didn’t touch upon. You know, or something that you would just personally like to have in this conversation? 

CHU: I think I pretty much touched upon everything [he laughs] that I’ve been rehearsing in front of the mirror. [they laugh] 

CHANG: Excellent. Well, thank you very much. 

CHU: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me again. [they laugh] 


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