Judson-Morrissey 2021 Fellow: Lena Chen

Lena Chen (she/ her)

I am a Chinese American artist, writer, organizer, and sex worker examining gender, labor, technology, and trauma. Engaging performance, writing, and social practice, my work is concerned with the fractured experience of womanhood: the state of being simultaneously revered and vilified, desired and rejected, empowered and objectified. I have produced participatory projects with various publics, including trauma survivors, sex workers, and abortion providers.

Named “Best Emerging Talent” at the B3 Biennial of the Moving Image (Frankfurt), I have performed and exhibited at Transmediale (Berlin), Baltimore Museum of Art, Färgfabriken (Stockholm), Tempting Failure (London), Die Digitale (Düsseldorf), and Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Berlin). Based between Pittsburgh, USA and Berlin Germany, I hold a B.A. in sociology from Harvard University and am currently pursuing my MFA at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Art.

Lena was a recipient of a 2021 Judson-Morrissey Excellence in New Media Award.

Tell us a little about your background and your trajectory as an artist/ scholar.

Before I became an artist, I was a writer. In 2013, I moved to Berlin and changed my name to escape an Internet stalker. I was coping with the fallout of having nude photos of myself published without my consent and decided to become a nude model to process that experience. Under my new identity, I posed for dozens of artists, with the intention to write about this for an autobiographical novel. The novel remains unfinished, but this was my entry point into the arts.

My academic background is actually in sociology, gender studies, and community organizing – elements which continue to inform my work today. Participatory and collaborative processes are at the center of my practice, which often blurs the line between art-making and activism. For example, during COVID-19, I hosted workshops on self-care and digital harm reduction, began an online performance group with sex workers across five timezones, and co-directed a summit on health equity for the BIPOC transgender and sex worker community. This process of relationship-building (initially in the absence of any grants or commissions) organically led to the creation of Play4UsNow, a “data dungeon” featuring an international cast of dominatrixes and sex workers who turned audience members’ data into fetish objects.

I work almost exclusively in collaborative formats – with my performance partner Michael Neumann, with the collective Maternal Fantasies (a group of artists/mothers), and with various collaborators in and outside of the arts. Even as a “solo artist”, I typically work in alliance with communities (ideally, communities with whom I share lived experience) to translate stories into participatory performances and artworks that challenge perceptions of sexuality and power. Whether the final result is a piece of immersive theater or a video game, my goal is find safe(r) ways to draw the audience into interactive performances that may evoke difficult memories or engage with sensitive topics related to gender, race, sex, and trauma.

What are some of your main influences?

Feminist performance art of the 1960s and 70s (VALIE EXPORT, Yoko Ono) was my gateway drug into the art world. Many of them made art that couldn’t be sold and wasn’t well understood at the time of their creation, which has liberated me from worrying too much about commercial or critical interest.

The late Scottish performance artist Adrian Howells has also been a great inspiration in my development of one-to-one performances, including works in which I breastfed strangers and shared foot massages with the public.

I have studied the methods of social practice artists Suzanne Lacy and Mierle Laderman Ukeles as I embark upon participatory projects with various publics, including trauma survivors, sex workers, and abortion providers.

In terms of thinkers and writers, I’m again influenced by the feminist tradition: Silvia Federici, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich – who have written about the complexities of labor, race, motherhood, and care.

What are you working on now?

OnlyBans, created in collaboration with Maggie Oates and Goofy Toof, is an interactive game that critically examines the policing of marginalized bodies and sexual labor to empathetically teach people about discrimination faced by sex workers online. Players encounter content moderation algorithms, shadowbanning, “real name” policies, facial recognition software, and other threats based on actual experiences of sex workers. Featuring real images and stories from sex workers themselves, OnlyBans offers a speculative vision of how marginalized communities can unite to protest these unjust policies and create better alternatives.