Inside-Out Practice|Series of interviews with authors from Yishu #6

Kate Steinmann

Kate Steinmann is an award-winning writer, editor, and art historian specializing in art publishing. Since 2004 she has been an editor at Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, a Vancouver-based journal of contemporary Chinese art co-founded by Zheng Shengtian and Ken Lum. She holds three degrees in art history, including an MA and PhD from the University of British Columbia and a BA from Trinity College, University of Toronto. Her research has focused on 19th-century North American print culture as well as on contemporary photography, technology, and biopolitics. From 2008 to 2015, Steinmann was an editor at the Vancouver-based contemporary art magazine Fillip, for which she curated the eight-part series of essays and images Apparatus, Capture, Trace: Biopolitics and Photography. Her work has been published in exhibition catalogues as well as in FillipC Magazinee-flux conversationsArt and Education’s Classroom, and Prefix Photo. She edited and wrote an essay for the 2016 book Jon Rafman: Nine Eyes, published by New Documents, about Rafman’s ongoing project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View. Steinmann is former Editor at the Art Institute of Chicago and former Director of Publications and Senior Editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago. From 2018 to 2020, she worked as a content strategist and writer for Canada’s largest independent human-centred design consultancy, Bridgeable, in Toronto. She has worked independently for art institutions and art book publishers in the US, Canada, and Europe, including the Vancouver Art Gallery; Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, UBC; Art Institute of Chicago; David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; Golden Age/Dominica, Chicago; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, New York; Honolulu Academy of Arts; and Torpedo Press, Oslo, among others.

1. When and how have you come into contact with Chinese (contemporary) art and culture?

My first substantial encounter with Chinese art and culture came many years ago when I worked as an editor in the Publications Department of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had recently spent time living in Japan, and I was lucky enough to be assigned to work with Dr. Stephen Little, the Art Institute’s Pritzker Curator of Asian Art at that time, on several consuming East Asian projects. Two of these were exhibition catalogues devoted to Chinese history and art, one on “spirit stones” or guai shi, the other on Daoism and the arts of China. I learned an extraordinary amount from Steve and the many other China scholars who contributed to those projects. But we were looking at historical practices and art many centuries old during those years. I didn’t come into contact in any significant way with contemporary Chinese art and culture until I began working for Yishu.

2. When did you join Yishu’s editorial team and what does your job include?  How did you collaborate with other team members?

I joined Yishu in 2004 as one of two editors working closely with Keith Wallace to edit each issue of the magazine. Julie Grundvig was the other editor; she’d been with Yishu since the beginning, in 2002. Julie had come to the job as a China expert; her graduate studies and career have been largely devoted to China and Chinese studies. I didn’t have any real knowledge of China beyond my limited museum project experience, but I had a background in museum publishing and a degree in art history to offer.

At the time I joined the editorial team, Keith had recently taken over from Founding Editor in Chief Ken Lum as Yishu’s Editor in Chief. As you know, Keith would serve for about seventeen years before stepping down in late 2020.

Keith, Julie, and I each reviewed and edited every text contribution for content and style, so in that sense it was a team editorial effort. But Keith very much took the lead in editorial matters, including planning content for each issue, working closely with each author to find the clearest way to present their ideas and develop their text into final form, managing images, managing Julie’s and my work, working with the designers, planning and participating in Yishu events, and much more. Keith is an exceptionally dedicated editor. With his even temperament, good humour, deep intelligence, quiet ego, attention to quality, enduring work ethic, and patience, he’s the kind of guy you’d want to work for forever. It’s been a real pleasure to learn from him.

Chunyee Li, who came to Yishu as an intern fairly early in my own tenure and quickly made herself indispensable to our operations—she serves as our web editor among many other duties—worked with Keith, Julie, and me to support the process of shepherding each issue through layouts with our designers at Leap Creative Group. Lara Broyde, our office and subscription manager, kept the magazine running on the business end, and it was always a pleasure to see her at Yishuevents. I didn’t interact directly with our amazing publisher and president, Katy Hsiu-chih Chien (簡秀枝) of Art & Collection Group, Taipei, but, of course, we’re all extremely grateful to her for making Yishu possible.

When I joined Yishu I was pursuing graduate studies in art history at University of British Columbia (UBC), and during my first several years of working with the journal I was still living in Vancouver, as did the rest of the editorial team. We enjoyed the privilege of meeting in person regularly. I was always dazzled by the Chinese New Year meals Yishu’s Managing Editor and Co-founder, Zheng Shengtian, hosted annually. He knew the right restaurants to go to and the right things to order! Vancouver is a kind of paradise for Chinese food. By the way, Sheng’s daughter, Ling Zheng, is an incredible, renowned Vancouver chef.

I feel extremely lucky to have had a number of opportunities to learn from Sheng over the years. He’s had an remarkable life and career as an artist, scholar, and public intellectual. After the Cultural Revolution, he was one of the first Chinese artists to go abroad to study. He’s done a lot to connect artists, scholars, critics, and audiences in the “West” with China and vice versa—through Yishu, of course, but also in so many other ways. I learned recently that of the many people who consider themselves his students, those who speak Chinese often call him Zheng Laoshi, which means Teacher Zheng. I don’t speak Chinese, but maybe this is where I should start (if he will forgive me for not having done so earlier); I know I have so much more to learn from him. 

Ken Lum had left Yishu by the time I joined the team. The one time I had a conversation with him was when Zheng asked Ken—who was at the time a professor in my department at UBC—to give me a ride a rather long way from the UBC campus (where I lived) to a Yishu event we were all attending in the outskirts of Vancouver. I was relatively new to Vancouver, and I’d never travelled the route we drove before. I wouldn’t have thought much about it had I been travelling alone; it included no spectacular buildings or large monuments. Ken knew the area well, however, and, as we drove, he shared one fascinating local history after another. I learned from him that many of the seemingly nondescript sites we passed—residential intersections, plots of grass, modest buildings, abandoned train tracks taken over by nature—were deeply charged. I doubt I could have come by such a vivid portrait of Vancouver in any other way.


3. In what ways do you think Yishu distinguishes itself from other art publications and journals?  What is particularistic about Yishu?

For a long time, Yishu was the only serious publication documenting, critically reflecting upon, and theorizing a rich and growing contemporary Chinese art scene—and the sociopolitical milieus it unfolded in relation to—in the English language. The journal focused on publishing long-form texts by writers from around the world—essays, interviews, conference papers, in-depth reviews, and more. It stood in contrast to the big, glossy magazines appealing to art collectors and connoisseurs and, of course, to the pay-to-play rags. So it filled a huge gap in the literature for non-Chinese-speaking audiences. The journal created a critical record, but in addition to serving as a chronicle, Yishu played an active role in the development of the contemporary Chinese art scene itself. 

Yishu is changing now, with Keith having stepped down after so many years and our editorial cycle shifting. Rebecca Catching and Diana Freundl are joining Yishu as its new Executive Editors this year, and they’re planning to introduce some changes to the format that should be interesting. I’m excited to see where we’ll go next.


4. In the process of editing, what do you enjoy or benefit the most from?

The rewarding thing about being an editor is that it requires you to read all kinds of things you’d probably never read otherwise. I now have a 16-year education in contemporary Chinese art that I never, ever thought I’d have. It’s been illuminating and moving.

5. The inaugurating issue of Yishu in 2002 posed a series of questions to prominent art practitioners in Chinese contemporary art. Now that Yishu has arrived at its milestone of 100 issues, we’d like to pose some of these questions back to you: What are your thoughts regarding the situation of art and culture in China today? What does Chinese art and culture mean to you? What does “China” mean to you?

It’s been astonishing to witness how contemporary Chinese art negotiates China’s own artistic traditions as well as those of the “West.” But I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to understanding Chinese art and culture. What I do know is that “China” has meant many things to the many contributors who have written for Yishu. Geography and national borders, even when extended to the diaspora, account for only a fraction of that.

6. What do you think of the relationship between Yishu and art criticism in China over the years? What kind of criticism has Yishu fostered and promoted? 

As Keith Wallace pointed out in his recent discussion with you online, Yishu has largely been free to say what it wants to say for at least two reasons—first, that it’s published outside of China, far from the reach of censors, and, second, that it runs very few advertisements. I’d add that the fact that Yishu is independent has given it considerable autonomy, too; as supportive as institutional sponsorships can be, they often come with strings attached. For these reasons, Yishu has been able to offer a unique perspective.

Nearly two decades of Yishu—a huge archive of some 1,500 texts—is and will remain available. It’s a massive asset that scholars, critics, and artists can continue to build on.


7. We have learned from Zheng Shengtian that all editorial staff work part-time. Besides as an editor at Yishu, what other activities and practices do you engage in?

I was a member of the Vancouver-based Fillip editorial collective from 2008 to 2015, working with Kristina Lee Podesva, Amy Zion, Antonia Hirsch, Jaclyn Arndt, and others in a largely woman-led effort to expand spaces for critical discussions of contemporary art, to give voice to emerging writers, and to present new art, in writing and through in-person events. We published Fillip magazine as well as books. 

I have three degrees in art history, including an MA and PhD from UBC and a BA from Trinity College, University of Toronto. When I entered the master’s program at UBC, I had unwittingly positioned myself in a relatively conservative space through my undergraduate education and museum training, and my time studying in the strongly left-leaning Department of Art History, Visual Art, and Theory was mind-maulingly intense. I couldn’t be more grateful. It was a true education, enlightening and wit-sharpening.

I conducted my master’s research in 19th-century North American print culture. My thesis, supervised by Professor Maureen Ryan, examined a cartoon published in Harper’s Weekly in January 1860, on the eve of the US Civil War. The image policed performative standards of race and gender for the benefit of a ruling class at a time when questions of citizenship, civic capacity, and national belonging were rapidly coming to the forefront of public consciousness, especially in New York City, which was a nexus for feminist, abolitionist, and black manhood suffrage movements. This research has really taken on fresh relevance for me with the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. 

For my doctoral work I moved into the contemporary era, looking at art that takes photography and video as both medium and subject. My dissertation, supervised by Professor John O’Brian, looked at a small group of video works from the first decade of the 21st century by artists Melanie Gilligan and Hito Steyerl. I argued that, in different ways, these works implicitly reveal how biopower viscerally exposes and hyper-visualizes the neoliberal subject, positioning it in tension as seemingly coherent yet infinitely fissionable. Gilligan’s and Steyerl’s work of this period hints at the boot-in-the-face violence of neoliberalism and austerity that many of us are feeling somewhat more clearly in the world today.

I’m an award-winning writer and have published work in exhibition catalogues as well as in FillipC Magazinee-flux conversations, Art & Education’s Classroom, and Prefix PhotoFillip hosted my curated eight-part series of essays and images titled Apparatus, Capture, Trace: Biopolitics and Photography, in 2015 and 2016. I edited and wrote an essay for the 2016 book Jon Rafman: Nine Eyes, published by New Documents, about artist Jon Rafman’s ongoing project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.

I mentioned earlier that I began my career as an editor at the Art Institute of Chicago, where I spent years in training under the expert supervision of several senior editors including the legendary Susan Rossen, who led the department for 28 years. From 2011 to 2013, I was Director of Publications at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, where I worked alongside the great designer James Goggin, who now teaches at Rhode Island School of Design.

I’ve also worked independently for a range of art institutions and art book publishers in the US, Canada, and Europe, including the Vancouver Art Gallery; Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, UBC; David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; Golden Age/Dominica, Chicago; National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, New York; Honolulu Academy of Arts; and Torpedo Press, Oslo, among other clients.

I gave birth to a son in 2016, and since then my priorities have shifted considerably. After he was born, I worked for two years as a writer and content strategist for a human-centred design consultancy in Toronto, but Covid-19 forced them to lay off almost half their internal staff in September 2020, and I got the axe along with several others. I was one of millions of women who left the workforce as a result of the economic decline triggered by the pandemic. Now I’m back to doing freelance work.

Interview Planning: Liu Yusi, Huang Wenlong
Interview Translation:Ninjia
Proof-reading:Ninjia, Liu Yusi, Zhang Ligeng, Huang Wenlong
Post Editing: Liu Qian
Design: Onion

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