The Tertium Quid Project
MAY 2016 COMMONS
Featured Artist: G. Funo O’Kain
Funo O’Kain is Sansei Mixed-Race Japanese-American.
Trained in a variety of disciplines, including printmaking, animation, installation, film, textiles, drawing, and writing, Funo’s work investigates the politics of race and the poetics of identity.
Her most recent works, included here, are part of an ongoing project titled, The Tertium Quid* Project. These works employ quotidian mediums, such as t-shirts, buttons and official documents, to pose questions about how our identities are shaped by declarative acts, the perceptions of others, and designations made by larger administrative and legal entities (such as the US Census, and the Department of Vital Records). She is also interested in distance, longing, and the phenomenology of expatriation, repatriation, and nomadism.
Language is foregrounded in Funo’s work as a way to investigate the role that it plays in identity formation.
Images 1 and 2: Two passport photos and a re-issued birth certificate comprise Interlineation. Funo’s original birth certificate lists the artist’s father’s race as “Chinese.” Funo documented herself in an official passport photograph, as a “Chinese” person, then appealed to the Illinois Department of Vital Records to correct the error. The re-issued document is corrected by the interlineation of the word, “Chinese,” and the addition of the word, “Japanese,” in the margin. Funo then documented herself in an official passport photograph, as a Japanese person.
Image 3: An Invitation, A Declaration, and a Warning, is an experiment in performing race as a declarative act. The word “Warning,” in the title, refers to Funo’s experiences, passing for White, in which White people have made racist remarks in her presence, and backpedalled when confronted with the artist’s identity.
Image 4: Check One was produced in a limited edition of 100 buttons. Funo wears one every day, and distributes the buttons to anyone who asks about the button’s meaning. Those who ask questions, almost always have a personal understanding of the non-binary nature of identity (in terms of gender, race, or religion, etc), and have at one time or another, checked the “Other” box on an official form. This work generates conversations, creates connections between Funo and the audience, and makes the “Other” visible.
* Tertium Quid is Late Latin for “some third (and unknown) thing.” The term describes something indescribable, that is produced by combining two, known things. The term is used by W.E.B. DuBois to describe the Black body as seen by white eyes, as something halfway between man and animal. The Bible also uses the term to describe Jesus Christ as something between man and the divine. It is also used to describe a combination of gold and silver, also known as electrum.
What are the effects of linguistic determinism on the mixed-race experience? In other words, how does language shape our beliefs about ourselves, and our identities?
How does invisibility function in the mixed-race identity?
What first came to mind upon viewing The Tertium Quid Project was, ironically, a binary: public vs. private. In each piece, I see an aspect that is quotidian (public)—a formal document, an article of clothing—and something personal (private)—identity. Yet O’Kain’s question of invisibility presents a third option beyond or between the binary of public and private. She displays how truth (identity) will always be true even if it is invisible, unrecognized, or mistaken.
Like identity, language contains an invisibility in its origin and meaning. The truth in language reveals itself when we strive for intention in identifying. In my experience, describing myself as “half _____ and half _____” rendered a fractioning/fracturing of my self view: not enough, half and not whole. In this way, “Tertium Quid” adds possibility to who we can be: something mysterious and divine as opposed to something insufficient.
Carly Bates is an emerging artist who thrives in cross-discipline collaboration and studies of mixed identity and liminal spaces. Her most recent project, Negotiations, was a solo narrative performance exploring the intersections of biracial identity. A recent graduate from Arizona State University, Carly looks forward to asking more questions and making more discoveries.