Katytarika Bartel is a filmmaker, youth worker, and community artist. They co-founded ANGRY ASIAN GIRLS, a community organization that gives a platform to a group of individuals dedicated to changing the way the AAPI community is represented. They also teach media and design to youth at the Castle Square Tenants Organization’s youth program. Katy’s work specializes in identity politics, recognizing identity as a powerful vehicle for change. Along with Lily Xie, Crystal Bi, and Ponnapa Prakkamakul, Katytarika Bartel is a driving force in our Residence Lab program. We are so excited to feature her as part of our Residence Lab Artist series.
Thank you Katy for taking the time to come out to the ACDC office for an interview. It was so inspiring and meaningful hearing about your experiences as a LGBTQ mixed-race artist!
Selina Li: Where did your family immigrate from?
Katytarika Bartel: “My mom emigrated from Bangkok, Thailand when she was about 21 years old. She landed in California where she met my dad, who is a second-generation immigrant of German descent.”
SL: Was Boston the first place that they landed?
KB: “I was born in California and then moved to New York City. My family lived in Harlem for a while and then spent some time in Connecticut. I’m kind of all over the map. When people ask me where I’m from, which is often, I don’t really have an answer because I moved 10 times as a kid. Having one home is not really a familiar thing to me and that is a perspective that I bring with me. So far, I have lived in Boston the longest. I write a lot of poetry around the question, ‘Where are you from?’ because I think there’s a shared experience behind the question.”
SL: Because you’ve moved around a lot, what does the word “home” mean to you now?
KB: “I love exploring the concept of home. In our Residence Lab discussions, I do a lot of work with my team around the idea of home, what it means, and how home might not be a place. Home for me is where my mom is because I didn’t identify much with my Thai background growing up. I suppressed it because I was always ashamed of my identity, especially while attending a predominantly white high school in Connecticut. I thought, ‘I don’t want to be different at all.’ People were constantly telling me that I didn’t look Asian, so I thought I shouldn’t identify with that part of my background. I had a lot of feelings about being in-between identities.
Now, I have embraced the parts that I used to feel ashamed of, and I feel most at home with my mom. The food that she cooks for me and the way she holds and makes space feels like home. She’s always been my grounding place.”
SL: Were there any artists or musicians in your family?
KB: “My dad was an artist. His career was based in architecture and engineering, but in his free time, he was a painter. He painted a lot, but he never pursued that as a career path. He probably didn’t think that painting was practical as a profession. He passed away this year from cancer, and at his funeral we displayed his artwork. Some of his friends never knew that he was a painter because he never shared it. My mom is also very artistic but would never identify as an artist.
My family didn’t encourage me to be an artist. I don’t think they were super psyched when I told them I wanted to study film. I didn’t feel supported by them until my film was screened at the Boston Asian-American Film Festival.”
SL: Who inspired you to make art for the first time? How did you get started as an artist?
KB: “I didn’t know I wanted to be an artist until I went to college. I went to study creative writing and I never thought of myself as super artistic. I realized quickly that I very interested in art and activism and the link between the two, so I transferred to Emerson College. However, there’s so much privilege at Emerson, especially white privilege. There’s a pipeline of students whose parents already work in the film and theatre industry, so they have this advantage over others. The conversations that I had and the people I met were very interesting. It fueled my art.
I made my first documentary at Emerson. I was inspired by some of the Asian American folx that I met while studying at Emerson. It was cool to learn from all these queer AAPI femmes doing filmmaking. I picked up a camera and I’ve been exploring film ever since.”
SL: What medium are you most comfortable with?
KB: “My voice and my camera are the two mediums that I am the most comfortable with. The first type of art I did was slam poetry, which I did in high school as a hobby. I went to Brave New Voices, which is a national slam poetry competition. I have performed spoken word poetry in Boston at different venues. I use my voice in art for public organizing, activism, and slam poetry, while my camera is the tangible medium.”
SL: What kind of poems did you write about?
KB: “The first poem I ever wrote about was being mixed-race and navigating that. Looking back at it, I think there was so much I had to learn about myself. I was very confused and conflicted with my identity, so most of my poems were about being mixed-race and queer. Slam poetry is a way of giving myself space to speak. For example, East Meets West (EMW) Bookstore in Cambridge was one of the first places that I had felt like home in Boston and that I could be seen on a stage. They house the longest running Asian-American open mic event in New England. Four years ago, one of my best friends, Dahn-Bi, made me come with her. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s so many Asians here. Everyone’s making art. Where has this been in my life?’ It was incredible. Slam poetry and EMW have been huge inspirations for the work that I wanted to do. I featured friends from EMW in my documentary, Re(Orient).
SL: And is it the same for photography and videography? What or who do you take pictures and videos of?
KB: “I always take pictures and videos of others. Whereas in spoken word, it’s always about myself. It’s always my learned experience, because I don’t want to speak for anyone else. But, the cool thing about the camera is that you can tell other people’s stories for them in a way that is visual, relatable, and engaging. You can give them a platform that they might not already have.
I’ve been doing video work for a while, and my videography has always featured Asian-American artists and activists except for one documentary I did in Cuba about race. My videography work almost always highlights local activists and my photography work is an offshoot of that. I’m a self-taught photographer. I’ve been documenting every Asian artist and activist that I can think of in ways that are affordable, accessible, and beneficial for the subject who I’m featuring.”
SL: Who inspires you to make art?
KB: “All of my friends inspire me. I thought about this question for a while too because I have insecurities about being self-taught in my mediums. I eventually earned a journalism degree at Emerson. I did not finish my film degree, so I don’t know the technical aspects of everything in film. I often have this imposter syndrome when I’m making film, even though my work has been featured in film festivals. I don’t know elite photographers and filmmakers. I don’t see myself represented in most of the people who have ‘made it.’
I draw inspiration from both artists and non-artists in my community. For example, Jeena Hah, the Programs Manager at ACDC, inspires me all the time. The young people who I work with inspire me. People who are passionate about what they do and who work for the community inspire me.”
SL: Why did you decide to highlight the community and Chinatown in your art?
KB: “For Re(Orient), which is a documentary series I produced, I interviewed my best friend Dahn-Bi who co-founded Angry Asian Girls with me. I also interviewed Ricky, my partner, who was a volunteer at EMW Bookstore, and is a spoken word poet and designer and the singer-songwriter Haezy Choi. I thought it would only be shots of their art, but while interviewing them, I realized that I couldn’t encompass their work and who they are without featuring their communities. For Dahn-Bi, I couldn’t capture them without filming the Angry Asian Girls team working in Chinatown. Same thing with East Meets West bookstore--the community built that place. For Haezy, her audience was everything to her, and she talked a lot about finding community in Boston. These three episodes started as a short documentary series but turned into 20 to 30-minute episodes. I realized that community is also part of identity.
A lot of the Chinatown community is East Asian, yet despite being Southeast Asian, it still feels like home to me. My mom and I go grocery shopping in Chinatown, and I have many meaningful memories of Chinatowns around the U.S. Being around the language and the food here and working with youth in Chinatown who have similar experiences to my own means a lot to me. I want my art to capture that essence of home for others to see and for other to find.”
SL: What role does your art play in community organizing and activism?
KB: “There’s a lot of community organizing and activism in my work with Angry Asian Girls (AAG). We started off as a collective but grew into a community organization. We realized that a collective is very internally centered and focused on the artists, whereas an organization is focused on what’s around us.
Dahn-Bi and I met through the Asian American Women’s Political Initiative (AAWPI). We were interns there and both interested activism and disrupting politics, but in a different way than AAWPI’s approach. There were seven AAPI women in our cohort and at the time, we were all angry at how silenced we were while at the State House. There was a lack of opportunities and lack of representation, aside from ourselves.
To fundraise for AAWPI’s next cohort, Dahn-Bi and I drew from the cohort’s collective experience and frustrations at the State House. We decided to make and sell ‘Angry Asian Girls’ t-shirts. Sales took off and we made $3,000 that summer. We realized that selling the shirts were strictly a business interaction and we didn’t want to start a brand. We grew AAG to accomplish what we really wanted--to give back and create space through community events. It started with the two of us and now we are a larger community. We hold space for the many people from the queer and AAPI community, Asian American women and non-binary identifying folx.
Art can impact the community in a lot of different ways because you are creating a space that facilitates joy, which is powerful. I think when people hear of ‘Angry Asian Girls,’ they only think, ‘You’re angry. You’re radical. You’re organizing.’ We are these things, but our events subvert those perceptions. Our events are also positive and safe spaces that hold joy, make art, and create.”
SL: How would you want your work as a videographer, photographer, and poet to impact the community?
KB: “I want more people to recognize what poetry can be. I teach slam poetry in the spring at Castle Square and I love when young people see that poetry isn't just what they learn in school. When I show youth a video of a slam poetry performance by my friends, their eyes light up. Being a youth worker, I think if growing up, I had a mentor who also identified as artistic--if I had different supports--my path would have looked very different.
Slam poetry is like music and storytelling combined in a creative way that most people are unfamiliar with. I feel so strongly that poetry should be given more platforms. I also want to make videography and photography more accessible. Teaching low-income communities photography or videography and providing them with the proper resources can help them thrive in the digital age.”
SL: What is your favorite art project and why?
KB: “What I’m doing in Residence Lab is quickly growing into my favorite art project! We are working in the lot near the Chinatown Gate (10-12 Hudson Street), and I walk by that space all the time. I used to live in Chinatown because was previously the only place I could afford to live. I think it’s really exciting to transform a space that’s been referred to as the ‘piss lot’ into something beautiful, and more importantly, something meaningful that was created by and for the Chinatown community. I believe that the residents and community members care about this space so much more than any developer would.
We work in teams with Chinatown residents and our team talked a lot about how to make the space interactive. We decided to build on the themes of ‘play’ and ‘oasis.’ We are constructing nine large wooden boxes that can be rolled around. Each facet will feature photos of all the participating artists and residents who helped create the space, and stories about Chinatown that explain why this neighborhood is home for some of them on the boxes.
What I’m doing in Residence Lab is becoming one of my favorite art projects because I’m always thinking about how I can make photography more community oriented. Expanding the process and end-result beyond the photographer-subject dynamic can be hard.”
SL: What is the most rewarding and the most challenging part of the Residence Lab experience?
KB: “The most rewarding aspects are working with the residents and then eventually seeing the art in its full glory. I would hate if I was only asked to make the space ‘look pretty’. That approach that allows an artist to enter the community and impose what they think it needs without input from residents.
Many workshops within Residence Lab have guided and shaped the artists' relationships with the residents, and the program provided a space and outlet to work with residents in ways that I never have as an artist. For example, I proposed plaques, but Joyce, one of the residents said, ‘I have kids and I think it would be fun if they could interact with it.’ That was how we came up with the idea of movable blocks. Our idea included a plan where the blocks could also form a stage, which was inspired by another resident, Maggie, who noticed that Chinatown doesn't have a stage area. This was a cool need to learn about, so the most rewarding aspect was the process.
The most challenging part so far was cutting wood at a hardware store for our blocks, but it is also rewarding to work hard to bring something come to life. While we have a relatively small budget, it’s exciting because I’m not the only ‘artist’ doing the work. It's a collective effort.”
SL: What are your aspirations as an artist? How would you like your art to grow?
KB: “I never thought I’d get this far as an artist. I feel like I’m finally in a place where I can start making strides. I want to create long-term projects and make waves in those inaccessible, elitist circles where you don’t see a lot of people like me represented. I want people to know that anyone can rise if they are intentional about it.
I think that we can be giving more to the Chinatown community like what Residence Lab offers. Residence Lab teaches me about how residency, communities, and art should be done. The program offers childcare, stipends for artists and residents, food, and it’s structured in a supportive way. It was a pleasant surprise for me to be supported in this way with all these resources. It’s an important community-oriented approach to preserving Chinatown. Residence Lab challenges the gentrifying pressures encroaching on Chinatown’s borders and within Chinatown. Residence Lab also explores how to take preventative measures. I love this concept of activating space along the borders of Chinatown as a means of protecting the community through art.”
Thank you again Katy for the thoughts and feelings you put in the work you do to serve and empower the Chinatown community. We are so lucky to have you in our team.
To see the work that Katy and the other Residence Lab group has worked so hard on for the last few months, come to the Hudson Lot this Friday (August 23rd) at 5:30pm!