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Talking Shop with Sook-Yin Lee

A chat with former MuchMusic VJ, CBC radio host, and contemporary artist Sook-Yin Lee about Stephen Harper's bland personality, mooning people, and Idle No More.
April 30, 2013, 2:48pm

Sook-Yin Lee. Photo by Kavin Wong.

Interviewing Sook-Yin Lee is intense. I’m in Berlin, she’s in Toronto and we did an email interview. She refused my questions at first, calling them redundant—so I knew she would be a tough interview.

Obviously, she is best known as the host of CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera, and maybe a bit haunted as a former MuchMusic VJ. But it makes sense. Lee has spent most of her career on the other side of the interview.


Much more (get it, MuchMore?) than just another journalist, Lee has had her fair share of being in the spotlight, too. We all know about her widely-publicised role as Olivia Chow in the Jack biopic, inside and out. She is a part of the Canadian media royalty, by far, even if she did make a bit of indie art porn in Shortbus.

What I’d like to draw your attention to is Lee’s shadow. Whenever we hear or see media personalities, rarely do we wonder what their lives are like off camera. Even in broadcast, there is always an element of performance (we can argue that one another time).

Lee makes art. Yes, you might know her old Vancouver band Bob’s Your Uncle, you’ve maybe seen her theatre shows at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. But Lee is a multi-disciplinary visual artist who meddles with video, photography and performance alongside her acting work.It’s a kind of conceptual core that holds it all together (did I just say conceptual?).

What really goes on behind the scenes? As the Toronto Star noted, Lee turns darkness into light—from her mother’s mental illness to her sister’s breast cancer, her work is raw in the Courtney Love sense of the word. Lee’s photos are creepy and real, almost Lynch-esque. Playful but powerful, she is gearing up for We Are Light Rays, her first museum solo at the Ottawa Art Gallery on September 20.

Anyway, in our interview, Lee talks about Idle No More, Harper’s charmless Christmas interview and who might make the next female Prime Minister. This August, she presents a theatre piece called How Can I Forget? at Summerworks in August, which is a direct response to acting as Chow in Jack. Interviewing another journalist can be a bit weird, but you always have something to talk about.


VICE: Welp, you’re a journalist, I’m a journalist. Here we are, together, in an article. Is there anything weird about being on the other side of the interview?
Sook-Yin: Not at all. I’m interested in asking questions and answering them because it helps me understand the interview process, which I'm passionate about.  It can be challenging answering questions. I was recently on the Jack press junket and journalists kept asking me the same questions. At one point I was in a ring of hell and trapped in a closet for three hours, having to answer, literally, the exact same questions in a succession of radio interviews. I tried to make it interesting for myself by answering the same questions differently, I also tried perfecting identical answers as if it was the first time I was asked the question. It was a strange kind of performance. This interview is weird because you're in Berlin and I'm in Toronto and we’re communicating online. You're Canadian and you haven't been in Canada in over a year.  Your editor wants us to talk about Canadian topics and politics, to get me to say something provocative. I’m wondering if this is possible—but I’ll answer your questions.

Whenever I look on my Reuters app to catch up on Canadian news, there is rarely any coverage. From an international perspective, why are Canadian politics so boring?
They're not boring, they're interesting. But you have to pay attention and care about Canadian politics to be invested in it.  A Reuters app on your phone is a condensed version of international news headlines. Canadian politics can seem boring compared to provocative sound bytes and flashy images. I wonder sometimes if Canadian politics are purposefully presented in a dull fashion so that you don't pay attention. Controversial bills are passed and important information concealed when no one's paying attention. It makes it hard to sustain interest and keep the conversation going—when you're distracted by sensationalistic news, life, and other interests.

GIF by Kavin Wong.

Bills being passed without anyone noticing… you mean C10?
C10 is a recent example. I'm also glad there were those with the curiosity and patience to decode Jim Flaherty's 2013 Budget, identifying passages intentionally added in and left out. On the culture of boring, recently, I wanted to get a sense of Stephen Harper's personality and came across a fascinating Christmas interview in an ornate holiday setting with a roaring fire, baubles, and a lit-up Christmas tree. In the middle of the room hunched over on a wooden chair, sat the Prime Minister going on about numbers and statistics and being about as dull as a math teacher. He's an unapologetically charmless man, which is an anomaly among the flashy scene stealers. I think his mundane personality is a part of his winning formula. He's easy to ignore and he hangs in there. He is our country's leader, and yet this interview garnered less than two-thousand hits.


He’s not a very electrifying man. Is there any chance there will be a Jack sequel?
I doubt it, but maybe Jack Layton returns and joins forces with Olivia in a zombie musical.

That’d be cool. Is it bullshit to ask if you think Olivia Chow should be the next mayor of Toronto?
It’s not bullshit, but I wonder why I'm asked that so often. Is it because people are sick of our current mayor Rob Ford, or do they want to know if I advocate Olivia Chow's political views?  I can’t say she should do anything.  She has a passion for politics, and if she wants to run for mayor she will. May the best person win and lead well. What is bullshit is when people ask me to do her accent, like it's some kind of party trick, or when I'm asked to show up at a function and impersonate her. Uh, no.

Well, there goes my next question. Moving on. If you had to pick, which woman would be the next Prime Minister of Canada?
I look forward to the day when there's another female Canadian Prime Minister. I'd like to see an evolution in government towards more effective, and humanistic ways of making things work better. I like Pam Palmater. She’s a force behind Idle No More. Pam’s a Mi'kmaq lawyer, teacher and activist. She came up outside of a system that denied her aboriginal rights and she went toe to toe with lawmakers and leaders and now she’s helping to improve that system with new ideas that transcend wholly right or left-wing thinking.


What are your thoughts on Idle No More?
I'm excited about Idle No More. It offers an avenue of expression, communication, and exchange of ideas. Visibility is key. It's important to see that there are others like you, who share similar passions and concerns. I appreciate the way Idle No More encourages peaceful and respectful communication. There is joy in and energy in the events I've attended. No doubt, there are complicated challenges facing Canadians and Aboriginal communities that will take time to process and improve upon. Idle No More gets the conversation going.

From "How Can I Forget?"

Many people know you as a radio and TV host, a singer and an actor. But you’re having a show at the Ottawa Art Gallery this September. With so much else that you do, do you feel like you’re overlooked as a contemporary artist?
I’ve been making art for my entire life. I was raised in Vancouver’s underground music and arts scene in the late 80s, and thrown into the public spotlight when I started working at MuchMusic and now the CBC. Initially, my curiosity as a performance artist led me to mainstream media. I wanted to see what I could get away with. My part in the controversial sex comedy Shortbus made headlines, and Jack brought on a wave of media interest in Canada. Media and movies are part of a larger machine with a bigger audience compared to my less publicized undertakings, but they all fit together and inform one another. It’s exciting. Being referred to as a contemporary artist is a relatively new way of describing what I do. It coincided with my exhibiting work in an art gallery context. I’m up to all kinds of experiments in hybrid-narrative performance, music, movie-making, video, and photography, that not as many people know about. That’s okay by me. You have to seek it out. But it is the genesis, and it's the seed.


How do you feel about self-portraiture in comparison to the relationship dynamic of sharing the stage? I am dying to know.
How Can I Forget? was a response to shooting the movie, Jack. In losing myself in the role of Olivia Chow, I experienced the mutability of persona and realized there is no finite identity. Who we think we are changes depending on set and setting. In private moments, when I stood in front of a mirror, without makeup or disguise, unable recognize myself, it was pretty terrifying. I was spooked for months, but eventually I got used to it. It was a valuable experience, realizing there is no self. Self-portraiture is a creation, of reality and not. The stories that make up the fragmented narrative of How Can I Forget? came from specific personal experiences, but there is also confabulation, imagination, documentary and fiction thrown in the mix. I was influenced by Carl Jung's notion of the inner anima and animus, and a Japanese creation myth about brother-sister lovers in an egg that gives birth to the universe. In the performance, Benjamin Kamino and I embody aspects of the same person; it’s a playful co-operation.

Cool. So, the last segment you did on MuchMusic in 2001, you mooned the fucking camera and the audience. WTF!!! If you had the chance, who would you moon today?
I can’t think of anyone. Mooning an individual pales in comparison to mooning the world.

Follow Nadja on Twitter: @nadjasayej

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