Charlene K. Lau is a New York-based academic, art writer and cultural worker. She has over ten years’ professional experience nationally and internationally, working as a curatorial assistant at the Textile Museum of Canada, as well as having held teaching positions at Ryerson University and York University in Toronto and Western University in London, Ontario. Her writing has been published in C Magazine, Canadian Art, Critical Studies in Fashion & Beauty, Fashion Theory, Journal of Curatorial Studies, and PUBLIC.
Charlene’s research interests include modern and contemporary art, the contemporary avant-garde in art and fashion, art criticism, material culture and the history of design. She is a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons School of Design, and has received a PhD in Art History and Visual Culture at York University, Toronto. In addition, Charlene holds an MA in the History and Culture of Fashion from the London College of Fashion (UK), as well as a BA in Art History and Visual Studies from the University of Toronto.
Congratulations on your many accomplishments, and most recently for your fellowship here at the School of Art & Design History & Theory at Parsons. What attracted you to The New School? Parsons? ADHT?
Thank you, I am excited to be here in New York working in ADHT at Parsons. What attracted me to Parsons and The New School more generally is that it is world-renowned for new and innovative design and thinking that really pushes disciplinary boundaries. My interests lie at the intersection between art and fashion, so I feel right at home here in ADHT.
Do you have a project you’re working on in New York that you would like to talk about?
During my time here, I will expand upon my dissertation research, which examined the Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) and the contemporary avant-garde fashion practice of Bernhard Willhelm and Jutta Kraus. The cultural institutions in New York are incomparable and unparalleled, so I’m looking forward to working with such rich archives and collections.
How does one beat the odds to work in a creative field they are passionate about?
The key to working in any creative field is to remain open to new and different opportunities, and to collect as many diverse experiences as possible. I started off as an artist, a role that then morphed from making and performing works into conceptualizing my practice as an art critic. I never lost my interest in working with objects, and this led me down the path of spending time with fashion and textiles in museum collections, and studying the history and culture of fashion. Everything came full circle with my PhD, where I was able to combine all my previous education into a unified whole: art history, contemporary art, critical art writing, fashion and visual culture more widely. I see all of these various facets of my scholarly practice as interconnected and dependent on the other.
What role does discovery play in navigating the intersections between your education and your career paths?
Exploration, then discovery, have always had a huge impact on my work, both in education and professionally. I took time off between each of my degrees, never predetermining whether I would go to graduate school or what area of specialization I would take on. Because of this openness, I was able to carve out a path at my own pace and weave the strands of education and career together somewhat organically. I do not necessarily see my education and career as being separate entities; to me, both are about learning and doing labor, and are inextricably linked to a continual process of defining the self.
What surprised you about your education when you began applying it to the working world? Was it a seamless transition? Was there an educational opportunity you regret passing on?
What surprised me is that no matter how diverse my educational interests were, they always enriched my experiences in the working world, and vice versa. I was lucky to finish my undergraduate degree during a time of great economic prosperity and was able to take advantage of a wide range of opportunities available to me. In that respect, I have been able to transition seamlessly between post-secondary education and professional life. I think part of this has to do with the fact that I always made a point of maintaining outside interests and extracurricular activities while studying.
I have never passed on an educational opportunity, mostly because I believe that education – in all its forms – is a pillar of a full and interesting life. Education is never wasted, no matter how divergent it seems to be from your core interests.
How does the role of a cultural worker speak to politics and the notion of community?
As a cultural worker, one implicitly represents a certain set of progressive politics. This includes an understanding of the importance of critical thinking, diversity and equality in the workplace and society more widely, and a conviction that arts and culture play a key role in everyday life. This political position is also imparted in the collectivity of cultural work(ers). In our current climate, funding for arts and culture is constantly being constrained and reduced. Because of this, cultural workers must band together to demonstrate how we (re)shape social values and contribute to a world worth living in.
Are any of the artists whose work in which you are interested connected thematically? Any themes that might speak about you?
I am interested in artists who ask difficult questions and whose work is politically engaged, whether in its subject, process of making or method of presentation. As well, I am intrigued by the connection between art and technology, not only in the contemporary understanding of digital technology, but in terms of how, over time, art has developed new mediums and ways of using them. More generally, I am particularly drawn to artists whose work addresses ideas of hybridity and in-betweenness.
Which classes are you teaching this semester? Spring 2017? What are you learning from your students?
I am currently teaching a section of the MA Fashion Studies program core course Fashion Studies: Key Concepts. In Spring 2017, I will be teaching the MAFS grad elective Avant-Garde Art and Fashion, as well an advanced research seminar in fashion. The great thing about students at The New School is that they represent a diversity of backgrounds and opinions. I am learning every day from them about their worlds.
Who and what inspires you? Favorite theorists, designers, artists?
My current research on contemporary avant-garde fashion makes use of Giorgio Agamben’s interpretation of the figure of the contemporary in relation to “fashion-time.” The contemporary – someone who can perceive the darkness of the present – is needed now more than ever, given recent national and international events. Speaking more specifically to art, I enjoy the work of art critic and historian Hal Foster, whose views on the state of art and its related disciplines are prescient. I have always had an inclination towards artists like Donald Judd, who had a holistic practice that incorporated art with philosophy and design. Likewise, I am interested in fashion designers – including Bernhard Willhelm, Walter Van Beirendonck and Rei Kawakubo – whose interdisciplinary practices incorporate politics with multiple facets of art, visual culture and performance.