When California’s shelter-in-place order was issued in March of this year, Los Angeles comedian Kristina Wong had grandiose plans of cleaning her house and sticking to a workout regimen.
Instead, Wong found herself fronting an amateur medical factory right from her living room and becoming “sweatshop overlord” to Auntie Sewing Squad, a group that now includes more than 600 members that dedicate their time and resources to creating face masks for health care professionals and other essential workers.
“This is what we do now as performance artists — create and fix medical equipment,” Wong jokingly said.
The currency the squad deals in is fabric, elastic and the time put into making masks. While most people who are staying at home are on a Netflix-binge marathon, Wong and her crew are on a sewing one. On Thursday, Auntie Sewing Squad sent a van full of supplies, including masks, materials and three sewing machines, to the Navajo Nation, which has been hard hit by the virus.
“I’m like, ‘How did I go from sewing a few masks to humanitarian aid missions?’ But this is the country we live in,” Wong said. “We have no government that’s functioning, so we have to do what we can.”
Armed with her Hello Kitty sewing machine, Wong said the work she does is not just about making masks; it’s about the community that’s been built and the way its sustained itself to protect the community at large.
“This is where I see my work as an artist,” Wong said. “We’re in the business of making communities and trying to engage people in meaningful ways, so for me, I don’t want people to create a labor farm, but I want people to find friendship, meaning and power in this work.”
Wong said, “If you’re bored at home, think about the power that you do have right now, and how you can be of support to other people.”
Performance artist turned politician
Besides being a performance artist, Wong is an actual elected representative from Koreatown’s Wilshire Center Neighborhood Council. Her new show, “Kristina Wong for Public Office,” draws from her experiences as a public official to highlight a campaign-based performance of satire and political commentary.The show began its tour in February 2020 before being halted due to COVID-19.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped Wong from continuing her show, which will be available through ASU Gammage’s Facebook page at 6 p.m. May 28. “Excerpts from Kristina Wong for Public Office” will be Wong’s first attempt at shifting her show to a virtual format.
“I have to dust off this old show — which isn’t even that old — but my mind and body have been in such a different place that I’ll have to integrate some of these new stories I have and still give it that ‘rally’ feel from my living room,” Wong said.
Wong said that although she wishes things were different, she’s happy to see artists try to embrace performing in a virtual format.
“The bar is so low — I don’t think anyone is expecting Zoom theater to blow them away — so there’s a lot of discovery to be made.”
Wong said she thinks people have felt helpless over the last few years, and her show aims to empower the audience.
“I ended up running for office because even as an artist, I couldn’t outdo the spectacle of real life anymore,” Wong said. “I thought, ‘If they’re going to take my job, I’m going to take theirs.’ A lot of what I’m discovering now during this time is just how inept the system is, the one that’s supposed to protect us, because it’s so slow, because it’s so mired in approvals and politics and filibusters, that citizens who take direct action can actually get more done.”
In the world of government, Wong said that a lot of what politicians do is not that much different from artists; they create a lot of symbolic gestures and are actors in a public space.
“All we have right now are symbols, because we don’t have soap apparently, or vaccines and stuff like that,” she said. “So that’s power to me, and where our art is power. Putting symbols and culture and messages out into the world, but also action.”
Wong said she encourages folks to run for office, vote and not totally give up on the system when action can be taken.
“I feel like I’ve done more work in the last few months to help my community than I have as an elected official, and that’s a big question of the show: Am I more powerful as an elected official than as an artist?”
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