Carrie Chen and Mindy Seu in conversation ✧
On Uncanny Acts of Subtle Defiance
Growing up between the US and China, artist Carrie Chen has been inspired to draw from non-Western narratives and experiences to create her digital artworks—which are often self portraits or “revisionist” representations of herself at different stages of life. Deconstructing her Chinese-American identity, she uses 3D animation to reimagine and express ideas about cultural hybridity, representation, time and memory.
In this conversation with designer and author of the Cyberfeminism Index Mindy Seu, the artist discusses her ongoing “Eye Exercise” series, which places a young Carrie in the center of a frame as she engages in the daily eye exercise mandated in many mainland Chinese elementary schools.
The artist’s latest piece commissioned by Gemma, titled “Eye Exercise (Miss America),” features a young avatar rolling her eyes while daydreaming about being a glamorous beauty queen.
Mindy Seu: Digital figuration plays a large role in your work, often as a means to process cultural hybridity—especially with your travels between China and the US. To describe this figuration, you use this phrase, the “productive uncanny,” which brings to mind the Uncanny Valley, an unsettling emotional response that can be evoked when witnessing a lifelike humanoid. What makes this uncanny experience “productive” to you?
Carrie Chen: Working with 3D and digital figuration, I draw heavily from techniques used in VFX and character animation. Typically, animators try to avoid the "Uncanny Valley"—that unsettling feeling evoked by almost-but-not-quite-human characters. In my work, however, I find this uncanny quality to be quite fascinating rather than an issue. The sense of otherness and strangeness it introduces actually heightens the sense of emotional resonance in my work.
Do you think you're drawn to the sense of uneasiness to help the viewer recognize what is human versus manufactured in some way?
Yes. Many of the digital figures I've been creating recently are modeled after me. In Temporal Portrait, I used AI-powered apps with aging algorithms to generate various versions of myself across different ages, from childhood to old age.
For each rendition, I started with these AI-predicted facial versions, then crafted 3D bodies to match. They each resemble me in some ways, but in others they are totally unlike me. They are avatar representations of this idea of me. When they were exhibited as life-scale projections, viewers were confronted with this group of 24 Asian women—almost like a family portrait—staring back at them, and their sense of collective presence felt really intense in the gallery space.
When we think about the aging filters being used on TikTok, it feels like a humorous thing we can try, piquing our curiosity about how realistic it might look. But when you describe going back to China and seeing these photos of your parents and grandparents at different ages, I wonder if there’s also an empathy effect?
It’s fascinating to see people perform older versions of themselves with these aging filters! For my own research and character creation, referencing old family photos was an important part of the process. As a Chinese American who spent about half of my childhood in Shanghai, I’m often reflecting on my own family history and my relation to both American and Chinese history and identity. I found one of my mom's photos from when she was around 4 years old, sitting on my great-grandmother's lap wearing this Soviet-style jacket that children used to wear in the 70s. One of the younger avatars in Temporal Portrait also wears this uniform. This process opened up space for imagination where I could place my avatar selves in alternative historical timelines that generations before me may have experienced or fantasized about.
I’d love to learn more about Eye Exercise (Miss America), your newly commissioned piece for Gemma, which is a continuation of your Eye Exercise series. In that series, different avatars of your younger self are depicted with exaggerated eye rolling, while the frame of the artwork has this scrolling Chinese text about the importance of vision. And here you're referencing this widespread practice of daily eye exercises used in mainland China for elementary school classrooms. What is the purpose of these eye exercises?
In most countries, this practice of eye exercises is unheard of, but it is really enforced within Chinese school systems. Typically, the eye exercise is a collective, mandatory practice that happens every single school day. It's a strict routine of massaging pressure points around the eye. Typically in the afternoon, there would suddenly be a melodic tone that plays throughout the school. This would lead into this female voice gently announcing, “Eye exercises begin now.” Then everyone would drop what they’re doing at the moment and start following the different beats that accompany each exercise.
Was it clear to you what the purpose of the exercise was?
With intense school work and increased eye strain, the rate of vision-related issues was rising to a level where it became a public health concern. This process of massaging pressure points around the eyes claims to protect vision and prevent myopia in children. There was also a lot of language around vision and health that felt quite demanding and harsh. I remember seeing posters around the school building and in public spaces that read, “Your vision is important. If you don't protect your vision, you'll lose at the game of life before it even begins.” It was a lot of pressure, packaged within this institutionalized routine.
A question that comes up for me is whether this is care, or control. This “Eye Exercise” series is me now processing all of those feelings I had as a kid. I remember every time I closed my eyes and started doing the exercise, I wasn't even thinking about vision protection—I was diving into different fantasies and escapist daydreams of being elsewhere.
It’s noteworthy that instead of changing the practice of rigorous labor imposed on the students, they placed the burden on the individual, rather than the system. And then they used fear to frame it as a practice of wellbeing. You, on the other hand, used this routine as a moment to escape. It was such a soft and fantastical act of defiance on your part to use the eye exercises as a method of pursuing your own daydreams. What did you fantasize about?
There were so many of them, like camping in nature, or being in New York City, swimming, all kinds of scenarios that I would have rather been than at school. Many of these daydreams also relate to memories of being a young girl and the culture around girlhood. During a residency at GAZELLE.iO, I made a cowgirl version of the piece that's very much inspired by Claire’s, the ubiquitous mall store, with sparkly cowboy hats and pink accessories.
For Gemma, I created the Miss America piece. I remember day dreaming about being in a pageantry contest where I had glittery makeup while dressed in a satin blue gown with fuzzy, puffy sleeves. These works are essentially different modes of fantastical escape for my younger self.
Even if, at the time, this escapism was subconscious, now you're actually able to interrogate that and depict it in a very conscious way by making your internal world visible. While there’s a level of seriousness in them, each of these portraits have a somewhat humorous feel. Was it important for you to bring a sense of levity into these works?
Embedding unexpected details within these works is a way to bring a sense of humor, but also as a way to evoke certain memories and associations. I studied art history in undergrad, and one of my favorite things to learn about was portraiture. The portraits I was most drawn to usually involved humor—whether through their facial expression, an interesting accessory, or some object in the background that told more the story behind the figure and also left room for interpretation. These unexpected yet intentionally humorous details felt important, especially for this series that examines routine behavior.
In Eye Exercise (Miss America), your younger avatar self rolls their eyes in the opposite direction of the scrolling text. Your facial expression seems to shift from pensiveness to mischievousness. And your sash even reads “Miss America.” We’re really seeing this contrast between two cultural identities.
Eye-rolling itself wasn’t part of the traditional exercise per se, but I discovered that some cities, skeptical of the original method’s effectiveness, actually introduced another set of exercises that involved eye rolling as an alternative routine. I found that funny because the act of eye rolling in itself is such an ironic gesture. The eye roll encapsulates this idea of subtle defiance and humor.
“The act of eye rolling in itself is such an ironic gesture. The eye roll encapsulates this idea of subtle defiance and humor.”
For “Miss America” I was reflecting on my experience in Chinese classrooms as an American student and memories of growing up between cultures. Even though at first glance I fit in with my classmates, I was subconsciously still very much attached to fantasies of girlhood in the US, probably because of the media I was consuming and how it felt familiar and comforting in a way.
It seems like there are subtle acts of defiance happening on multiple levels. Not only do you have this period of reclaiming a mandated exercise—you are also unpacking these standardized gender norms that we are pushing onto young children. How do you connect to these self-portraits or these avatar selves?
I feel there is still a lot to unpack with this piece. I connect to them in a way that I think is very native to working in 3D and digital media. Everything I add to the scene is more or less intentional, from digitally combing my avatar’s hair using, to virtually sewing the Miss America sash, and applying heavy makeup on this beauty pageant version of my younger self. It's bringing me back to all these fantasies, while examining gender norms and perceptions of girlhood, and translating all those feelings directly onto the image.
There is this nuanced sense of awareness that this digital ‘Carrie’ embodies aspects of me, though not entirely. I see them more like vessels for processing experiences and understanding memories more deeply.
Your ideas around subtle acts of defiance and the possibilities of revisionist selves through portraiture asks us to rethink ourselves. And moreso, this fluidity between past, present, and future selves, especially as ubiquitous technologies make that distinction more blurry.
A few ideas have come up in this conversation that feel central to your practice. I’m wondering, what are your creative mantras, if you have any?
One creative mantra that sticks out to me is “embrace hybridity.” Also: “Experiment more.”
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