Photograph by Derrick Belcham.
Yamantaka // Sonic Titan is a collective of artists based in Montreal and Toronto, led by Alaska B and Ruby Kato Attwood. The group draws from Chinese, Japanese, indigenous and North American influences, both traditional and contemporary, in visually arresting and aurally mesmerizing multimedia performances. I spoke to Alaska B about the group's Pop Montreal performance of its original rock opera 33. She told me about growing up in small-town Alberta, art cults and when cultural appropriation is okay.
Taylor Tower: You draw from such a wide array of influences in your work. How did that come about for you?
Alaska B: I'm a mixture of Irish, a bit of Swedish, even some Mormon, and Chinese, and growing up I was never Chinese enough to be Chinese in Chinese class and I was never white enough to be Irish or Swedish or anything else. So functionally, in the end, you become nothing in people's minds, and since everybody needs to have a culture and an identity, you kind of have the option of creating one. I grew up a punk. I was into industrial music and metal in small-city Alberta and when I got to Montreal, I started playing in more bands and it didn't take very long to realize that if you're playing rock music, as a person of color, people do not take you seriously. It started between us two [Ruby Kato Attwood] as Asian artists and it expanded to include native and immigrant artists within Montreal and Toronto who felt disenfranchised in a way.
A lot of people didn't believe that I was actually raised Chinese—I went to Chinese school as a kid—and people not believing that and denouncing what we do all the time as Asian crap and insisting that we would be better fit to be playing a traditional Asian instrument or something, right? We decided, okay, if we take stereotypes and then we surrealize them to the point where it's just confusing to watch and there's nothing authentic left, then we enter a whole new zone of appropriation. The work that we're doing is more like lampooning. It's more like showing the follies of globalization. I don't think that's necessarily everything to do with our work, it was just the starting point. And that's what set us off into creating new worlds and writing new ideas. And through collaboration, we've built hybrid cultures within the work where we'll start pooling things together from our cultural backgrounds that are actually surprisingly similar, or even the same, and we'd incorporate that into our work because it's kind of like a vetting process. It's not like we just grab things—it's this process of doing actual research, finding connective strains, and then inserting them in and building this larger body of work.
TT: Yamantaka // Sonic Titan's sound is described as Noh-rock. Can you tell me about the influence of Noh on your work?
AB: All the work is influenced by Chinese and Japanese opera. The reason why Noh is pushed so much is because we definitely took a lot of influence from Noh opera, or Noh theatre, but primarily just because it makes a good pun with No Wave.
TT: What's your take on the different reactions you get from your work, both negative and positive?
AB: What fascinates me is how differently people respond to it. It's interesting how there's an equal number of people who are like "Look at what the Asian girls are doing" and start shitting on it, and then there are an equal number of people in the crowd who will turn to them and be like "This is important. This is Asian-American artists showing their work. Shut up, guy." You end up with these hilarious situations where you see how racialization causes people to act very differently.
I think in Montreal we definitely had an effect on the conversation. And I think it's a huge accomplishment to go on the FTV [Fashion TV] website or your local weekly and be able to take on these questions of identity and culture without devolving into simple racializations and stereotypes and complete inaccuracies. Because I feel like people are acting like what we're doing is really out there, but I just feel like we're one of the groups who are being really clear about our artifice. I don't think that what we do with Asian art is any different than, say, Wu-Tang Clan, but we don't talk about how Wu-Tang Clan is built on the backs of kung-fu movies. We do, but we don't analyze it.
There's no problem with cultural appropriation when you reference your influence. And you better be ready to answer people bothering you about it. We're trying to create something that people can rally behind, and with the number of young Asian and mixed-race and native artists who have come up to us and been, like, "Wow, after seeing your show it made me go, like, there's a different way to do things. I don't have to choose modern work or traditional work. There's someplace in between where I can call it my own."
TT: What was the process like to create 33?
AB: We like to work with mythological tropes and then update them, mix and match them together. I like to think of most of what we do as—I hate the word "mash-up" because it makes me think of Girl Talk—but ultimately that's kind of what we're doing. In the Buddhist scriptures, there's a story where Buddha's protégé does everything that he can in order to prevent Buddha from succeeding and, I believe, ends up dying from his attempts to stop the Buddha because he would just try to do all these different things and keep building up and trying bigger and bigger and more dangerous plots and eventually they just backfire and he just ends up dying alone in the end and regretting the whole thing. And so we mash that up with the Jesus parable and Christian numerology. There's 27 bones in the hands and fingers, 33 in the spine. So we're using a lot of numerology and Christian and Buddhist imagery mashed together.
The plot was written fairly hastily and then we went into a good two months of production on the first version of it, which was performed in February in Toronto, and since then we took a break. The past two months we've been back on it again, upgrading it. So what was maybe 50 percent done in our first prototype version is going to be 90 to 100 percent done for Friday. So we're going have a full show that we've been working toward for a good year. And we've done a series of smaller, home-brewed operas, but this is actually going to be the first one we've done that has a series of actors and dancers.
TT: How has collaborating in Yamantaka // Sonic Titan affected you as an artist?
AB: Well, it's definitely helped having more people around. Before it was just me and Ruby and I would end up doing so much work, I would be up around the clock, like, twenty hours a day. I'm kind of a workaholic. If I'm not then I'm kind of just laying on my ass. It's good to have a lot of work but now that we've upgraded a couple levels, it's a relief to have a team of professionals in their own field who really believe in what we do, who will just kind of jump in and add to it. So my life is easier as it gets harder. Does that make sense? And I think everybody's kind of happy that you get a place to kind of showcase your work. And it's really not any different than Lady Gaga having her House of Gaga huge entourage, except we're being a little bit more honest about it being a collective. It's very family-like, kind of like a cult. We call it an Art Cult sometimes.
33 will take place on September 21 at 9 pm at the Rialto theatre, as part of Pop Montreal.