VISUAL LANGUAGE - AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK CHEN
Artist and director Patrick Chen sits down with us to discuss his background, new upcoming film, and perspective on NYC’s thriving creative culture.
by Luke Lauren
Brooklyn, NY - Patrick Chen is a 23-year old visual artist and director, living in NYC but originally from Taiwan. His story reflects a journey familiar to some of us, and closer relates to the bravest at heart. Patrick left his home country in order to explore life in America, educate himself, and follow his dreams. Such a task is not exactly the easiest. Since coming to the States and finishing school, Patrick has shot editorial work for Vogue, Khoman Room, and worked with various musical artists in and around the New York City area. In only a year and a half, Patrick Chen has developed himself into an established creative and has flung himself into a continuously-rising trajectory of open opportunity. The possibilities are endless for Chen. I had the pleasure of interviewing our friend this past July where we conversed about life, art, the pursuit of knowledge and ultimately, the pursuit of happiness. Read about this young spark below and learn about one of NYC's most daring and busiest creatives:
You’ve done your thing around NYC for some time - shooting editorial work for brands like HSWLD, Khoman Room, and creating visuals with artists like Shadow Mosez. How long have you been working around the city?
It’s been almost 14 months. I moved here in the beginning of June last year after graduating in Providence, Rhode Island.
What do you do as a creative individual?
I take everything as an interpretation of the things happening around me, I interpret the emitted energies of artists and subjects I work with. Since I’ve graduated, most of my recent work has been with other people - whether it’s in music, fashion and the like. I guess my (job) is in fashion - working with designers and bringing their visions to life. As far as what I personally do, my core is in filmmaking and my roots are in photography. When I was in high school I picked up a camera and decided I wanted to pursue the arts in college.
Where did you go to school after following that specific path?
I went to The Rhode Island School of Design. The first year is mostly foundational with the way they set up their classes - a lot of introduction to drawing, painting, sculpting etc...In the second year, I got to choose my major and naturally went with photography. My parents were strongly against my decision and threatened to pull me out - they even suggested I just move to New York to take pictures. I argued my case that I wanted to (formally) learn more, and opted to pursue film. It gave me the opportunity to learn something new while being able to practice a familiar creative output. Sophomore year, going into film, I shot my first 16mm roll and for me that was it - it sparked a feeling in me that I did not want to forget. I felt that beforehand, I was looking for a way to express myself in a way that felt natural. Most creatives have that issue at first. You want to feel like you have something to offer in the end, and the process towards that can be a long journey of trial and error.
I guess if you look at it there are a lot of people with outlets that are unique to them. There may be specific roles and niches but all the elements are present per clique, and their style defines their work and credibility. Would you say your “style” comes from learning through formal education, or do you consider yourself a product of your ever-changing environment?
It wasn’t so much the school helping me find my own style as it was being given my own time and space to express myself. The facilities and resources at my fingertips helped me grow and for that I am lucky, but coming out here and meeting people on the same wavelength without a formal education was different for me. It was cool to see everyone find their own way to express themselves. At first I envied those who never had to go to school to find growth, but everyone has a different path. In school, there of course are a number of students eager to dive into the creative field - but with that comes a clash of intellect. Instead of peers strengthening each others’ visions it can become a race to “make it their own.”
At that point it became a weird space where I felt I had to play to a specific group of people’s expectations while I was there - every day you are placed with the same people for the next three years after choosing your major. Sometimes they may not think the same way you do or even care to hear things from your side. Sometimes they end up judging things solely based on their own acquired knowledge and information, or the culture they bring with them. It’s natural. A lot of the early work I submitted was very reflective of my own experiences at the time and how I had felt at the moment. Although I went into film, the first two years I tried to write scripts and make films - by the end of that time I had begun to realize how the writing aspect (scripts, screenplays, etc.) was not for me. I began writing a movie by frame and sort of shopped it as my thesis - that’s something I’m trying to work on and finish up and put out soon, just so it’s no longer on my conscience....
I chose Digital Media Installation near the end of my time in school. Some of my work included performance art accompanied with video installations that I had made. I began to branch out fairly fast, though. I quickly learned that I did not want to be “just” a director or “just” a photographer.
That being said, do you find it better to be excellent at one thing, or versatile in multiple formats? Age old question.
Ideally, the latter - having more knowledge in different fields while also trying to do different things can definitely be beneficial. A lot of that has much to do with being confident in yourself and not giving up halfway because you think you are not good enough, or even giving up as soon as you “get the hang of it.” So I feel like it is important on one hand to have one thing you know you are good at - just so you have a solid basis of enough confidence. Otherwise, someone can be confident enough to just get up and try anything! That takes a lot of work.
Growing up in Asia, no one really wants to talk about the kid with a desire for the arts. It’s like, “Oh yeah, he could draw! He’s good, but...he’s really good at science too.” (laughs) As soon as I hit the end of my freshman year in high school I had decided I wanted to apply to art schools. At that point I kind of had to prove to myself that it was a viable route. Of course I had to prove that to my parents as well - that I could do it and there was potential for me to make money with it.
So you grew up in Asia, finished school in Rhode Island and moved to New York - and ultimately your parents gave you the green light to pursue the arts?
They never really were against it, it was more like “You can do what you want, but...have you also thought about maybe taking another physics class?” That push kept coming and tension kept building, as if they cared for my happiness but didn’t really want me to walk down a creative path. The four years I spent in high school were mostly spent working towards convincing them otherwise.
I can relate to that. I was born overseas but grew up here. Culturally my parents had their own frame of mind as well, and I struggled to make a path clear for myself. I may not have had the most support but it taught me to move in a straight direction. Support came eventually, but I feel regardless that one has to be focused on their own path.
Agreed. I don’t think I would be here if that wasn’t the case for myself, I would be home already. It’s been an interesting eight years since I’ve found what I wanted to do - not that that statement is completely accurate, but I put myself in a general direction toward where I want to go. I feel like the things that I want to do will take time to achieve. Do more, think bigger, bring everyone up and do a huge project together.
It takes time and steps in order to do something big, and everything is natural. Like you said earlier, I feel like you do have to find something you are good at in order to even branch out in the first place.
It’s like a tree - when you branch out it’s not like you jump from taking photos to (swimming) for example. You stick closer to a niche that supports what you already have, branch further, and in that process you “level up.” It’s like building a character in an RPG - you want them to have a balanced skill set, otherwise you will play the game handicapped. I treat life as a game, but more of a very serious game with very serious consequences (laughs) but it’s still a game. Everybody who is still your friend, everyone around you is playing the same game and it’s up to you to know what’s going on and for you to keep -
"- leveling up."
Yeah. Every time something happens to you, you get out of it, you stand up again, and you level up.
It really is like a game, because you can pick up as many skills as you want. Your brain is an amazing tool and the amount of skills you can pick up, the information you can store is almost infinite. You can learn something new every day, and you’ll pick it up more the older you get - with every opportunity that comes you can be better prepared by keeping the things you’ve learned over time. It’s a big thing especially in this day and age where people are constantly getting better and better, and there are more people - literally - that are in your same space and trying to do the same things you are if not similarly.
That shit scares me, especially coming from a school where people gather together to go somewhere creatively in life. Every year the freshman would come in smarter. Better grades, higher scores - everything and everyone is progressing at such a fast rate. 10 years ago if you tried to apply to an art school, there was no guarantee of what you would end up doing after. It’s very much the same way now, except now with such a steady rate of production in visual and creative arts the possibilities are more open, comparatively. Now you can acquire virtually any piece of knowledge because you know someone wrote about it and posted it on the internet. If you study it all up you’re going to end up beating everyone else that doesn’t have that information.
So, do you see the pursuit of creativity as a competition nowadays, or do you see it as everyone “trying to do their own thing,” in a sort of passive “I don’t want to compete with anyone” type of way?
(laughs) I see it as both, I admit to jumping in-between the two. There are times where I feel competitive but it’s always friendly - usually it is with someone I know. If I don’t know someone I don’t really care what they are up to. It’s not currently affecting me but maybe one day our paths might cross, until then I tend to just focus on what I am currently working on. I don’t want to offend anyone by acting salty or competitive in any way. There really is no point in being salty anyway - I believe everyone gets their opportunity and if you work at yours then you’ll get what you deserve at the end. It’s a matter of time. I’m also very short on time, however, so I’m conflicted.
I think it’s also the way that I was raised - not everyone had the opportunity to go to the schools that I went to at the time. My family did go through a sort of financial crisis as well at some point... I noticed when everything kind of started disappearing in the house over time. It seemed like they wanted to hide that from me and in turn tried to develop a sense of tunnel vision for my future.
The mantra was to “go to school, learn English, go to America. Go to school, learn English, go to America...”
When I finally came here it was really confusing, I grew up expecting to be here and here I ended up! I had prepped my entire life to for me to be in America but things weren’t exactly what I expected.
If you think about it, that’s pretty fucking hard to do.
It was hella crazy thinking about it for sure. My parents had to work so hard for them to even give me that opportunity, but right now my stay in the US is limited and even closer to ending. It gives me a weird feeling - that after I’ve prepped my entire life to be here I still face the possibility of being forced to go back overseas unless the government approves the extension of my visa. All my life it’s like my fate has been decided by somebody within the US government, but at the same time this decision is not the defining moment of the remainder of the rest of my life. It’s just one phase and if it passes, it passes, you know? I still have my own life in my hands.
Life is crazy. We’re in our early 20’s and the possibilities of what we can create in 10, 20 years are endless. Directors and artists have lived three times as long and have created ten times as much.
That’s why I get conflicted if I ever am jealous.- whenever I see someone achieving things that I want to be achieving, I want to be in their position but I know that person had worked hard to get there. That keeps me focused.
You could either be conflicted or inspired, you know?
I feel like in the end I always push myself to feel inspired over any other feeling. This past year has been a little rough trying to find myself - not only as a person, but also as an artist. From the first year out of college having to worry about finding a job and a place to live, it was a journey of my own. My school never prepped me for life in New York let alone anywhere else! Some schools implement courses where you are taught to make your craft into something that can make money, or at least put you in a position where such a task is easier to accomplish. My experience in school and fine arts was more centered on honing in a skill and reflecting that upon myself.
When I came out to (New York), I thought to myself, “Well I have all this work about myself, what do I do with it?”
At that point I had to teach myself to branch out - seeing what my other interests were, meeting other people that I could connect with within those worlds and feel out what my opportunities were.
What made you want to move to New York?
Man, that’s a long story, but not really. You could say it was slightly out of stubborness. In Asia, people who thought I was from America would tend to associate my image with being from here. It’s weird since I hadn’t even gone to New York at the time, but apparently it seemed fitting. They would mention the fact that I didn’t have an accent, but I had developed my English in school and was taught by a bunch of white teachers. On top of that, a lot of my schoolmates in higher grades moved out here after graduating. It all felt meant to be in a way, I mean it was all just easier. I had also made sort of a pact with those friends who moved out here to stay in touch and to keep working together to help each other bring our visions to life.
I didn’t have very much luck finding internships upon first coming to New York. I kind of thought that I would come here and just be able to “do something.” Either way it was all a gut feeling and I was faced with the option of either (New York) or Los Angeles. It just felt natural for me to choose the former even though I had never lived here before.
I feel like there’s an importance in the way people ”use” New York. Especially for people like you and me who aren’t originally from here. There are those who might come here, live the same life and meet the same people for two years and switch it up - maybe their jobs change - eventually leading them to experience a new world in front of them, exposing themselves to a new part of town etc...People like us have a tendency to just want to try new things because it adds to our creativity. The more you see, the more you could reference and the more you reinterpret life - the right way.
That’s why I love the concept of the pursuit of knowledge. It’s said that knowledge is power. If someone is in need, you are better prepared to serve anyone who needs your advice, your creative input, your spark of talent. I find it sick that knowledge is available to us anywhere. I believe education is important, but I stopped early to pursue life in a different way. I don’t necessarily regret it.
Education never really stops. If someone perceives that education lacks substance because it’s not being pursued one specific way (ie. school) then I’d have to disagree. I’ve met so many people who have decided to take a different route and pursue their own knowledge and they currently are much more successful than I am.
I see things similarly. People my age are doing things differently but I wasn’t there when their opportunities arose. In turn, they weren’t there when mine did. I feel like I’ve gone through four or five different phases of living just from being in New York. What I was going to say is, a lot of things I’ve learned and acquired in the years I would have went to school have taught me something in relevance or equivalence, compared to if I had actually went. But there’s always a clash living with many “what if’s” - I kind of grew up that way moving around each year, but you kind of just decide to say “fuck it,” and keep going. Whatever, life is crazy. Must be a theme here (laughs)
Also, the world is in a crazy place. We’re at a crazy age to be experiencing all of this. We’re supposed to be independent, right? Then all this...shit is just happening around us. It’s tough. Not to mention even the art world has changed so much since I myself decided to pursue working in it. Since getting out of college I had to figure out how to get around, and I decided to try my hand in fashion and music videos. (Music videos) are probably my favorite thing to work on, I’m very fluid even though I can’t really make music. I see it as a perfect combination of my interests, especially if I could work with a musician and help bring their ideas to fruition. That same ease translates into fashion as well - shooting collection videos and embodying a whole idea into a minute of visual essence. I feel like I’m playing God, yo (laughs).
There’s definitely a sort of ‘god complex’ when it comes to my work. I like to interpret things but what you expect will never usually be what I already envision. It’s always me “wanting to see something,” and “this is how I’m going to show you visually.” I always felt like I’m not good with words so this is my best way of translating things...My forte is to express myself through visual communication. Lately, it’s been crazy - there are so many new photographers, new creatives, younger creatives, creatives with better connections - the list goes on. At this point it’s best to just concentrate on myself and improve until somebody sees that I’m worth their time to come fuck with me.
I’ve always felt like we are alive in a grey area of sorts. People 5-6 years younger than us will never understand what dial-up was. People 5-6 years older than us seem to have a more solid footing being from a different time period. Those people developed the bridge between real and virtual interactions.
It became a revolutionary phenomenon. You never know, what you put out there could change so many things. Our general age group is stuck in this level of consumerism and the concept of a formal education. Remnants of the past generation. There’s a difference between people who want to break away from that and people who are highly invested into it otherwise. The thing is, we sit on varying ticks of the same exact spectrum.
I feel like the younger generation is a little more well-rounded and hip to creativity. It will be exciting to see the future of the youth’s imagination come to life, paired with new technology and an accumulation of strong ideas. It’s also exciting to be a creative in a world of growing art. The thought of success and being recognized by stronger and fellow creatives make motivation sweeter.
The chance of someone you admire seeing your work nowadays is more common. It may make the competition a little more fierce, but it also makes an acknowledgment more rewarding. On top of that there’s always a little bit of public interest - me and my friends usually hate on Instagram and that kind of stuff - but to be honest, I wouldn’t have had much of the opportunity to work without it. I probably wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.
What accomplishments have you achieved since moving on your own?
When I first came to New York I got a little lucky - an alumni from my school was looking for an assistant. She was already working within the fashion industry shooting for magazines and stuff so I got to experience that pretty early on. I got to shoot Vogue and other high end fashion magazines, mostly video work - but some of my jobs included photography as well. From there, I began to work on the side with a photographer who was also on the fashion team. He was pretty big then and still is now, but that opened the door to a lot of other work early on in my process.
I shot lookbooks & editorial work for a time, and after three months of sticking to that I decided to once again branch out to find what was best for me. Another one of my friends I went to college with is a co-founder of the independent clothing brand Khoman Room, so I produced a lot of their promotional work as head of media for about three months. We parted ways eventually but I had a cool experience working within a company, although small, and having to focus more on someone else’s vision compared to my own. From deciding what to shoot at times, to determining what content to create & put out and even what looks to style, I learned different ways to bring attention to a brand and to market something well enough to get it noticed. I took all that and tried to apply it to myself afterwards. I then began to focus on building my name as an artist and working on more individual projects instead of just working with somebody or helping someone out.
Sometimes I second guess and think I made that kind of choice too early, but things have their way of working themselves out. It takes a lot longer to establish yourself in the video world, unless of course you know someone who can put you in an appropriate spot. A big part of this journey is gaining connections and gathering exposure, so right now I’m on the level of accumulating my work by myself - not trying to pay for fake followers and shit like that. I just want real people to see my work and want to work with me.
It’s been picking up lately for me and others. In a lot of the relationships I’ve established with people, those that I’ve met are also strengthening their crafts and improving constantly. There are more opportunities now for me to do my own editorial shoots where I’m both a photographer and director, which is cool and exactly what I need to be doing, so it feels right. It’s really been a year since I’ve thought about shooting something for myself.
I’m still trying to figure out what I want to do for a full-time career, especially for my family, but for now freelancing and contributing to friends and brands that like my style and match my vibe seems to work out. Anonymous work for companies where you can’t really see my style works for now, because it means I am a commodity and become treated as such. That stuff’s a little soul-crushing though (laughs) because I don’t really find much pleasure in it or see much opportunity to move up, but I do what I have to do before doing what I want to do.
I always try to think about what I’ve done in the past year. To me it doesn’t feel like a lot, but for people to come up to me and say they notice the work I’ve been putting in makes me realize that I’ve crammed a good amount into a year’s time. Maybe I’m not satisfied but it’s a good problem to have. I tend to stay hungry.
Last question. What’s the latest project you have been working on?
If I could reference something that I drew a lot of inspiration for and am continuing to perfect, it would be my short film. A couple of years ago I was a little invested into the film Enter The Void. I was going through a lot towards the end of my college career, and this movie was such an intelligent spark that broke the normal visual expectations of perception and life in general.
When I began making this short film I sat down and thought, “I’m analyzing myself. I’m going through a lot so I know my work will be a reflection of what I’m going through, so that’s how I should go about dealing with these issues.”
I began writing my thoughts down and soon started having these crazy dreams that led to inspiring the introduction to this movie. I hadn’t remembered my dreams for at least two or three years, but that morning I woke up and felt like something had spoken to me.
I would have this repeating dream, in first person, of me walking to my living room and seeing my body on the couch. It’s not like I’m dead - my body gets up and starts walking towards the front door and I follow it. The door opens and I see this white light, it covers everything. All of a sudden me and my body respectively are transported back to my childhood home in Taiwan. This is a place I hadn’t been to in for over 4 years. Then the dream ends.
So yeah, that dream is where I kind of drew a lot of inspiration from and that film was kind of a visual exploration of how I was feeling at the time as well. I also thought a lot about my parents and their sacrifice, and how it’s time to be independent as well as still being young and figuring out what love is. Those are two main focus points that I tried to highlight through visual language as it pertained to my own emotions at the time.
The first screening at my school had subtitles - as I mentioned earlier, the critique and environment made it feel like I had to create a more solid narrative in order to get a better grade. Now, upon revising I am focusing more on visually telling a story the way I intend to. I call the film A Familiar Vacuum, because no matter how many times you try to speak in a reoccurring dream it doesn’t happen - it feels like a vacuum of silence. You’re not able to communicate with anyone outside of yourself in that environment, but you become more open to observation. It then becomes familiar because it’s your dream and you revisit this place and you begin to see new things within this place each time. It feels familiar, yet strange at the same time - it’s like this void that I’m entering, but it’s also a void that I created for myself. I’m not really sure what it will finally translate to, but that’s kind of a summation of what I was thinking as I finished this film up. I see it as a total representation of myself and my current work in one completed piece.
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Patrick plans to screen his debut film in and around New York City within the next few months. As a first generation immigrant myself I believe that his journey involves a great deal of courage, especially as he faces uncertainty in the hands of our government. If you or anyone you know has the chance to encounter someone on a similar path, do not hesitate to reach out and see what you can do to help! Dealing with visas is not an easy task and anyone with knowledge of this process knows that there are many long and tedious steps. Best of luck to Patrick as he continues to make waves among NYC's finest. - lukey
Interview by Luke Lauren