Simon Wu '17 on his new book Dancing on My Own

May 30, 2024

A&A alumnus Simon Wu ’17 will release his first book, Dancing on My Own (Harper Collins), on June 25, 2024. 

A The Millions Most Anticipated Book of 2024 and a Publishers Weekly Summer Reads Pick, Wu’s debut is already receiving high praise. Author Cathy Park Hong says “Simon Wu manages to be both a shrewd critic and enthused aspirant of what passes for today’s cultural capital... with a disarming lack of cynicism that is both keen and refreshing.” And Claudia Rankine raves, "A genius melding of art criticism, autobiography, personal essay, and travel writing...Wu—an artist, curator, and writer—layers experiences like translucent curtains through which we see the landscape of a past in the present making its future." 

A curator and writer involved in collaborative art production and research, Wu is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in art history at Yale University, while also working as Studio Manager for Professor Tina Campt’s Studio for Radical Aesthetics. He serves as a thought partner for Campt and project manager for the various gatherings and conferences she organizes. Most recently he helped organize the conference “The Radical Practice of Black Curation.” 

He has organized exhibitions and programs at the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum, The Kitchen, MoMA, and David Zwirner, among other venues. In 2021 he was awarded an Andy Warhol Foundation Art Writers Grant and was featured in Cultured magazine's Young Curators series. He is a member of the Racial Imaginary Institute, and was a 2018 Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.

He shared his path since graduating from A&A to becoming a published culture critic:

 

Q&A

Book cover showing blue and green shimmering water

Photo/Jared Lew

Q: How do you summarize the book?

In its shortest form, the book is about family and art that is about family. But family in the broadest sense––my actual family, my art family, and my friends. 

As a memoir, it’s about my life in the years after I graduated living in New York 2017–2022, trying to make sense of the transformations in art, fashion, and identity politics that were happening around me, and also still trying to have fun. I think New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu summed it up best in his blurb, that the book is about “what it means to seek freedom in the things, institutions, and most importantly, people around us.” 

Q: How did you come to this topic?

I started writing about art and culture in 2017, right after I graduated from college, and then continued to write for a few years in magazines and catalogs. The first piece was about Telfar bags, and the reaction my mom had to them. The next one was called” Party Politics,” in The Drift, about the politics of radical raves in New York. When I left my job at MoMA in 2021 I started looking at the writing that I had done and expanding and fleshing out the arguments from them. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away?

That there is a way to approach cultural politics that is both “hopelessly romantic and relentlessly pragmatic,” as I say in the book. By which I mean that a socially engaged art-making life should deeply interrogate its role in society, who it is serving, and why, but also center the joy and difficulties of collective work.

Q: What were some key discoveries or surprises in the process of researching/writing?

I thought it was going to be more straightforward to convert previously published essays into something that felt cohesive as a book, but it took 6-7 drafts and many editorial meetings with so much rewriting and rearranging before I could really solidify what it was that I was trying to say in each text. What I learned through the process was that my intuition was usually right, even if I didn’t yet know what it would look like in the end: I knew if it felt right or wrong. I am a lot more trusting of my intuition now. 

Q: Which new questions has writing the book raised for you?

Oh wow so many. It feels like finishing the book was really the beginning of my writing journey, ironically. There is a lot of material about Asian American art collectives that I feel like I just began to scratch the surface of with this research, and want to continue with some granularity, maybe digging into the history of one artist or club more closely. Some of them are drawn from the current state of affairs: what does an expanded sense of Asian American solidarity with the war in West Asia/the Middle East look like? What does it mean to be American today? What does art making look like now?

Q: How long did you work on the book?  Were there any noteworthy challenges or windfalls?

I wrote the first piece of the book 7 years ago, not knowing it would become a book. The actual concerted period of writing was about a year and a half. The biggest challenge, honestly, was sustaining the hope that a book would happen. Around six months I hated everything and wondered if there was going to be a book. Around nine I started feeling better and then around ten somehow everything fell into place. Sometimes you just need to stew in the uncertainty and stick with it through multiple drafts—some breakthroughs did not come until very late drafts. 

Q: Are there ways your A&A education influenced the book?

I took incredible classes with Irene Small, Annmarie Perl, Rachael DeLue, and Hal Foster that really taught me how to think about art. The Media and Modernity series exposed me to the thinking of very significant artists, like Seth Price and Walid Raad, and the informality of the gatherings encouraged me to ask simple, sometimes even stupid questions that actually usually resulted in surprising answers. 

Also, Hal Foster giving me an A- on my JP, a perfectly acceptable grade, really lit a fire under me to make my writing better. More than the grade it was his feedback: to think through my writing, rather than have it be some kind of process after thinking. It really pushed me to work on my writing and close the gap between the way I felt about a topic in my head and how it was expressed on the page. 

Q: Are there specific A&A faculty who helped form your thinking?

In addition to those above, I’d add Fia Backstrom, David Reinfurt, Joe Scanlan, and Pam Lins in VIS who really taught me how to think about art making expansively. 

Q: What sort of art do you make?

These days I make less art directly, but I do make installations and exhibitions drawn from my personal life. Lately, I’ve been making experimental clothes and stuffed animals with my mother. A lot of things I wrote off as not worthy of art I know have folded into making: the materials at my parents' house, collaborations with my mom, the aesthetics of my childhood home. 

Q: What did you do directly after graduating?

I moved to Brooklyn and did a summer internship at the Whitney Museum, and then a year-long fellowship at the Brooklyn Museum. 

Q: When do you expect to complete your Ph.D. and what is your dissertation topic?

Aiming for 2027. Its not yet in stone but I’m thinking about looking at alternative sites of Asian American collectivity in the nineties—fashion collectives like Bernadette Corporation, nightclubs like Warehouse, and art-adjacent bands like Emily’s Sassy Lime. 

Q: How would you describe your role working with Tina Campt?

I’m the Studio Manager for Tina’s Studio for Radical Aesthetics. I basically serve as a thought partner and project manager for the various gatherings and conferences she organizes. Most recently I helped her organize the conference “The Radical Practice of Black Curation.” 

Q: Are you working on the next book?

Yes! It’s a fiction project and it's set in California. That’s what I know for now. 

Q: What are your goals post-Ph.D./where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Ideally, I’m working teaching at an art school and working on my second novel while adapting some kind of project to film.