Continuous Reward: A Senior Thesis Exhibition by Helen Lin (introduction)


I was the very first person to buy something when the shop opened today. I got these earrings, this little stuffed dog trapped inside a jar, and this CD recording of fangirls screaming. I spent $20 and 10 minutes total in the shop. Helen was sitting right here, and as I walked and found objects I liked, I would pick them up, shove my head through the curtains, and yell "I LOVE THIS" at her. Then I brought these three things up to the counter, paid, and left.

And as I left I was thinking to myself, oh my god, why did I buy these things? What intrinsic value do they have for me? Would I have purchased them if they weren't from Helen? For that matter, why these things? Of course there's an embedded pricing structure that I know affected my mindset, but money is a starving beast that consumes all other topics—and just like with Helen's show, there's other stuff I'm interested in.

So I'm going to talk about two themes I see in Helen's show in light of my experience earlier today: accessibility and ownership.

First, on accessibility. I think the interior space was made for me—or some being like me. I understand it immediately; it needs no introduction. When I enter, the language of the shop, from the colors to the music to the objects, tells me what I need to know. I'm comfortable in this space, I recognize the jokes, I buy into the conceit immediately. In the context of Helen's chosen ambient language, I know what I like and what I don't like. This is how I was able to react to and decide on my purchases so quickly.

In my eyes, the entrance hallway, bedecked with videos and posters and screens, is an unnecessary vestigial appendage. But for the unpracticed visitor, that entrance hallway might be a really essential means of orientation to the project at large, and I think Helen knew it was really important to provide this avenue of entrance, of setting the tone. So Helen's show is in this tricky position of having to commit to a conceit while explaining and contextualizing it at the same time, and I wonder how much of this is related to the injection of ostensibly commercial art into a traditional gallery art setting.

Secondly, on ownership. I feel that the idea of fandom, and more specifically of fangirls, is deeply embedded in the show even if it only explicitly peeks through at certain moments (e.g., this fangirl screams CD). In that sense, I feel that this show operates situationally in the visual language of East Asia, but cosmically in the global language of fandom—maybe a fandom with an Asian flavor, but one that has arguably spread across the world.

I want to explicitly link fandom to possession. What do you do when what's yours isn't yours? Or, more precisely, how do you make something that isn't yours yours? Consider the action figure, where people become so emotionally attached to a show or a character that the only way to relieve that anxiety and intensity is to possess its avatar. This CD of fangirls screaming is amazing to me because it's a curated collection of really primal, genuine expressions of loving a thing, and loving it so much you can't physically contain the expression of love inside your body.

In social science there's this idea of "cute aggression": it's why we want to yell about and squeeze cute things. The cuter the animal, the more aggressive the response. You lose control—it's so cute, it literally drives you crazy. In a study from 2015, people were given bubble wrap and put in front of slideshows containing either funny/neutral images or photos of cute animals. People looking at funny/neutral slideshows popped around 90 bubbles—but people looking at cute animals popped 120!

There are a couple of theories on why this happens. Maybe: seeing something cute makes us want to take care of it, but if we can't access it immediately we get frustrated and then aggressive. Or maybe: it's too much of a good thing! Like the moments when you're so happy that you get overloaded and cry, as if you need to counterbalance positive emotions with negative ones. And of course fandom isn't always about "cute" things, but I think that intersection between instinct, aggression, and the care response is a core driving force compelling it forwards, and why Helen's show works so well.

Maybe the reason I bought these three things, and the reason I bought them immediately, is because I'm a Pink Label Fan. That is to say, I'm invested in narratives of support (financial, spiritual, emotional) as expressed through a kind of ownership (financial, spiritual, emotional). These objects, even if I put them away and never look at again, take on a large psychological presence. It's not that they're representational of something else—it's that their value is located in the very process of undergoing a transaction and possessing the object. In accessibilty and in possession, to be a fan is to own while never owning, to understand and to want to be understood.