FLOWERS FOR VIVIAN

Wide Edit no.01: Vivian Fu

A Retrospective As Told By Azha Ayanna & Apryl Fuentes

POV San Francisco 2012, A fresh faced 18 year old Apryl Fuentes logs onto her Tumblr account “gringatears” an apt name for the then sardonic blogger. Apryl clicks the autofill password saved in her Firefox browser as if her password wasn't hackable enough. Apryl reenters the Tumblr kingdom she’s built alongside her best friend Azha, adorned with soft pink aesthetics and Shade Zine reblogs, where she has acquired a degree of internet fame (laughable by today’s standards). On this particular day she receives a direct message from none other than photo extraordinaire, “it” girl herself – Vivian Fu.

On a pre-Instagram influencer internet, this platform invented the DM. Back, back deep, back into time. This DM in particular was a pure fan-girl back and forth resulting in “let’s hangout sometime” to which I accepted in elation. At that time any glimmer of friendship from an internet link up gave me something to look forward to outside of my chaotic college life. SF was our playground, making our way across crowded Muni cars and neighborhoods crooked with Victorian style houses; homes to 20 somethings working multiple coffee jobs within walking distance of places that are mere figments of my imagination now. The city was a backdrop for a friendship that ensued, from the digital to IRL, when Azha and I met Vivian Fu.

“I owe like everything to Tumblr right?” She speaks directly into her headphone mic, her words reverberating like an ASMR YouTuber. “This is like something that would upset most of my friends... but I'm like, photography is dead! Let's explore," to which Azha and I laugh at the Zoom screen. It’s 2021 and we are video calling Vivian Fu to talk about photography and the fossilized internet culture we all came up on and all we can do is make meme references and shit talk tech companies. Let’s get into it. “Expand.” There was a Vivian before there was a Tumblr. You might not guess her beginnings with an art degree from UC Santa Cruz, a detail that makes complete sense when she lights up in talking about critical theory, the algorithm, and how our social conditioning shapes our aesthetic “choices” our tastes, if you will. 

“People are using cameras differently now. And I think, yes, they are doing soft documentation, which is what I was doing, but I think they’re also doing soft documentation in this other way that I was also participating in. I think what I was doing as well is...you sort of live your life in this way that is intentionally very photographic. But now, I think with Instagram, it is so next level. So like, you know, if I’m gonna take a picture of my bedroom, like am I going to make sure my bedroom looks nice? Or am I just going to take pictures of my bedroom?” 

My memory of being at Vivian’s apartment in the Mission back then is clear as day. Sitting on a vintage denim couch, I shared my ruminations on creating this platform that Azha and I had so cleverly coined “Shade Zine” to which Vivian beamed in unquestioning support. All three of us came up at a time before our understanding of algorithms, when we were making art and meeting up because we thought shit was “cool”. Critical conversations were starting to happen on the blogosphere and yes, we did graduate from the school of Tumblr. Still the platform was very much follow-for-follow this looks cute and I hit reblog. 

We go back and forth about the skewed systemic matrix upon which digital social media is anchored. You ever notice no one shoots horizontal photos anymore? Instagram calls for vertical imagery, the literal framework for how we view “the world”– a canvas for selfies or what we call “hot flexing”. “If you hit the jackpot of markers of individualism, we’ll say, you become marketable.” Deep into the discourse of identity and the meaning of representation within photography, we approach the conversation around Vivian’s expression of Asianness within her work, at times out of her own control. At what point is representation barely a marker for actual change, less than a step in any direction, simply a ploy for companies to profit off of this brand of diversity. We all agree that many of us don’t have a choice but to accept, sometimes, when saying “no” can be detrimental to a young artist with bills to pay. “I understand why people are doing it, but I think again, it’s because I was doing it. I was saying, 'do you want me to be an Asian schoolgirl? I’ll be an Asian schoolgirl.' But it feels so one dimensional. It’s not because I don’t want people to honor their heritage or their family, or to embrace their cultural rituals. But, I’m also just like, it feels like you’re doing this for white people.”  

Looking back at her own practice, Fu refers to one specific iconic portrait of hers, iconism as described by me and Azha. “I think at the time, the story about Asian girls was very limited, and I think that’s why I wanted it to be like, I’m on top of this truck. I’m holding guns, because up until that point it was literally like, oh Lane from Gilmore Girls or Nelly Yuki on Gossip Girl. It’s this very specific archetype of an Asian girl, and I was like ‘no. I’m bad’,” that last part booming once again in ASMR pitch. 

Even as we traverse through the past, the message remains the same. It’s one of intention and shifting reality. A digital landscape that once was can be no longer, because the ideologies we attempted to mimic as young artists are clouded memories now. We get on the topic of PostSecret – a throwback moment. For those unfamiliar, it was an online project where people could send secrets on postcards or imagery to be posted online in complete anonymity. Parallel to this pop culture moment, Vivian shares stories of working at a photo lab in SF slanted on a main street where Azha would drop off some of her early work, alongside other people’s memories, of which she was the beholder. Her fascination with people’s own aesthetic choices was further informed by her handling of customer’s most private moments, some photos which might never see the light of Instagram day. There’s an intimacy in the secret sharing of images close to the heart, like the scanning of a full tub of archival family photos, or that roll you shot at Coachella in 2010 – Vivian saw all. The recollections end on this note as our conversations snap back into reality. 

A curious person with the same spirit as in her scholarly years, she poses the question – “What is it all? What does it mean?” In her own expression, along with some encouragement from an influential college professor (like some of us were lucky to have), she came to understand that her “photography is like a ballad,” when words fall short. Vivian admits to not being vulnerable outside of her visual art, something I think more than few of us can relate to in one way or another. She’s still an internet punk icon in our eyes. We joke back and forth as we part ways; reaching the threshold of our 2 hour zoom call. And just like that, we break for dinner.