Intolerable Whiteness

My piece in the exhibition, On Whiteness, at The Kitchen, is a sleek, stainless steel, water cooler dispenser that has a video monitor mounted on top, where traditionally a 5-liter bottle of water would be. Here however, the water cooler dispenses milk to unsuspecting viewers of a video that plays on a continuous loop. The video documents public performances of investigative journalism, art as social practice, and popular infotainment as I seek to discover whether, milk is racist in light of the fact, the alt-right has adopted milk as their symbol of racial purity, since 75% of African Americans and Latinx, 90% of Asians are lactose intolerant, this white substance has come to represent white power.  Because of the loop, there is no true beginning or end to the video's narrative, collapsing cause and effect, refusing temporal and narrative closure, the sculpture then, becomes a proxy for my body as a performing artist and creates a "white line" threshold where some bodies can fully access the piece--those who can drink milk--and others--mostly non-white bodies--who cannot. 

The video that plays in the sculpture is here:

Intolerable Whiteness from Seung-Min Lee on Vimeo.

For an exhibition at The Kitchen, curated by poet Claudia Rankine's The Racial Imaginary Institute called "On Whiteness," I am making a performance and a sculptural video installation that takes on the conflicted symbolic power of milk.  As the once-booming dairy industry in New York state suffers with the steady decline of milk consumption, a new generation of Neo-Nazis takes pride in lactose tolerance, instrumentalizing the optical purity of milk as a emblem of white supremacy.  My contributions to the exhibition are twofold: one, a performance in The Kitchen's theater on July 23rd, that will dynamically engage the audience around the issues of food oppression and justice that incorporates the research and video produced for the exhibition, and two: a performative sculpture in the form of a water cooler dispenser that is filled with milk that will have a flatscreen playing a video that combines performances in the streets of New York where I stage milk interventions with the public, along with interviews I have conducted with milk farmers, an expert in agricultural law and jurisprudence, a staged PSA for multicultural milk consumption, and a viral video of neo-Nazis ritualistically drinking milk and spewing hate speech. Using all these strategies, I hope to communicate the complexity of a universal food issue that implicates us all.

As an artist, my locus of concerns has been around food oppression--which can be defined as the control and displacement of vulnerable communities through cultural and political adoptions of ideology around food that assume a Western, white body as its universal subject. As an Asian-American woman, who has varying levels of lactase impersistence, I always felt socially segregated or alienated by milk, cheese, and other dairy products that are omnipresent in the dominant American culture and in the rarefied spaces of art as a defining feature of participation. So when I was asked to make a new work of art for a show titled "On Whiteness,"  it seemed natural that my idee fixe became milk and all of its associations. In my research, I discovered that the so-called "alt-right" has adopted milk and the ability to drink milk (lactose tolerance) as a bellwether of racial purity, which galvanized me on the need to fully realize this project now.

I spent a day filming at Ronnybrook Farm, which is a 3rd generation, family farm owned by liberal Jews who were escaping Russian pogroms, hardly a neo-Nazi or Republican incubator. Small-scale dairy farmers are as subjugated and harmed by USDA policy as people in poor, vulnerable communities; indeed dairy farmers are in a crisis, with dozens of farms closing every month, followed with an epidemic of farmer suicides. Dairy milk itself is not evil; it's a commodity, but one that is in a crisis similar to that of coal in that it represents a failure of imagination in policy and our understanding of a presumed-universal white body politic that must evolve.