Kaixi was brought up as a shopkeeper's assistant, and a wholesaler/craftsman's apprentice, in a family of storytellers, philosophers, foragers and hustlers. Drawing from the age of 4, she ended up painting and advocating for tech literacy and creative empowerment so hard that she got here. Her journey, far from complete, has been one with a prolific creation of puns, resonances, and harmonies, as well as personal transcendence.
I was born with a vastness of seeing, feeling, doing, and understanding. My family are my wellspring. They are storytellers. My mum and my brother can yarn out entire essays on the spot. My grandfather, dad and I are philosophers and calligraphers, who embody our learnings in how we do things. My mum and dad both have great knack, and they ask good questions. Always treated me like a full person.
We were foragers too. I grew up in Mellons Bay, and on our street, there was an entryway into the bush, a magical realm which held my imagination for the majority of my childhood. We plucked watercress from water streams and kicked down tender bamboo shoots to cook into soup. We’d clamber down to one decaying tree off the trail that we would clamber down to pluck clusters of wood ear mushrooms. Throughout my life, my parents would make the most elaborate banquets of 4, 5 dishes every morning, of which some of the vegetables were grown on our patch of land. I was blessed.
On the weekends sometimes, I would work in the shop; setting up, stocking shelves, taking out bags of plastic packaging, mental arithmeticking at the cashier, helping customers find things, as well as being extremely unsure of all the prices, as many weren’t listed. My experience went deeper along the supply chain too - visiting wholesalers to choose products, designing graphics to print on goods, visiting China to see entire wholesale cities and getting mesmerised by factories.
Growing up, I was struggling to keep up with my brother and my parents, so I aimed for intellectual growth. As soon as I found that the kids around me didn’t vibe quite the same, I hid into my drawing, as it was a place I could place my love and deep connection to the world, as well as a way to channel my hungry hands.
Embittered and sober to my loneliness, I turned very mature, as though I was ‘born forty’.
In Year 2, we had an art class where we were painting butterflies with Indian ink and skewers. Ms Yates pulled mine out and said, ‘Woooooow’, to which the whole class said ‘Wooooow’. From then on, I knew that this would become my claim to fame, and so I requested from my parents drawing lessons. Though I would go every Sunday, I would also carry a notebook and draw faces, pretty ladies, objects, comics, and write poetry and diary entries. These pages are where I grew my skills the most. I would copy and create new looks from fashion magazines I would get from the Auckland Libraries, and come up with new characters and shading techniques to show my friends. I still carry a notebook with me wherever I go, as my best ideas usually spring from there.
My identity was split in two in Room K of Greenlane Women’s Hospital in Auckland, on the 21st of April, 1998. The nurse asked my mum what my name was. She said, “Kasey”. The nurse told her it sounded like ‘Kathy’, short for ‘Katherine’. So that went on my birth certificate. At home, I became Kāi Xi, or 凯西 (Kai-Shee).
Years later, I studied Mandarin in high school and university, and fell in love with my formal Chinese name, Yù Héng or 郁衡, which translates as ‘life force, and balance/horizontal’.
It was then that I knew that Katherine, a name always demure and serious, no longer felt good on my tongue anymore, as it meant a Westernness that I knew I had to push back against. I came to Anglicise this name, as Euan, but never fully inhabit it.
I had to ask people to change how they would call me, which was hard. At this time as Euan, it felt harder to be nonchalant about names, as while I wouldn’t refer to myself as anything at all, of course, it sent shockwaves through my community to say that names really matter. I’ve had more conversations about names and the right to change them and to own your own expression than I ever thought I would - in a way I became like a beacon for advice in my action. But I never felt like Euan completely captured me - it was too calm and austere, and still somewhat foreign.
It wasn’t until I was home working on my portfolio and my dad working on his calligraphy that he threw an ad-lib like he usually does, saying, “Yung Kai Shee”. And then it fit. It struck me that my name was there all along. I had been looking but never back, only further afield. And I thought - how nice it would have been to have found a name you liked as a parent to call a being that name upon first instinct - it deserved to be thrown in the air. And so I changed again. And it’s definitely weird to be called by the name I had in my home - a home with vastly different cultural and concrete expectations than the rest of it all, growing up. The name that received the most nurture, the most pain and sacrifice. It’s so much of me. So I guess I’m Kaixi now, primarily, and I always had been.
Strangely though, in this year, I have experienced more racism with my name ‘Kaixi’ being the barrier at which people stopped trying to comprehend me. I would weep, and recall moments of racial trauma I thought I had gotten over, but in trying to assert that I was important beyond my name, I knew I was harrowed, because I knew my name was important too. I would think of my parents and how many language cultures they went through just to have and name child, worthy of joy, like me. I really feel for all the kids who would grow up with hard-to-learn names outside of the Western norms, as I had never had to deal with being unknowable until my early twenties, when I radicalised myself to become more Chinese. Man, fuck all this. We all know this is wrong.
So my creative process is pretty much encapsulated by the tattoos on my arms. The box with the dashed lines is my logo, the 米字格 (mizige), a box that kids learning Chinese write in. For me, it is a symbol that represents the finite nature of my life. Instead of resenting the box, I tend to want to honour the box, knowing that infinite meaning can be placed inside. In my creative life, I find that I can rise to the occasion more when I have a set of constraints to work against, kind of like how a set of particles can bounce around and create more complex molecules when doing so within a sealed chamber. It also provides me a chance to reflect that I could never be totally ‘free’, (and that true freedom may be too scary, anyways).
It encourages me to choose the constraints of my life, so that I may work towards my definition of freedom, which involves duty and routine and responsibility. I say this as someone who has had times so ‘free’ that I had nothing to do, and could basically do nothing, which deteriorates my brain and my body.
Outside this cluster, the cosmic microwave background is drawn. The more I apply myself, the more I may actually learn, and the more the universe is revealed to me through the process.
Then there’s the ink on my right arm. It’s my ‘lifeline’ - it looks like a big scary gash to some, but it’s actually a line of ink that represents the flow of qi through my body, and represents my life from beginning to end. If you look closer, there are a few bits of ink before the start of the line, and they represent my dad and my mum, those who created me.
To me, blood is ink. Blood is the ink with which I write my life’s story. From the stuckness of the pandemic, I found a lot of release in ink painting, that became my series, Calligraphics.
When I perform these Calligraphics, I start with a blank page. Then I make a line. I play. I then start coming up with a space that seems to have its own logic, its own physics. Then I try think of what’s missing. Is it creatures? Is it a horizon? Is it a crux? Is it an explosion? A dissipation? I access my entire metaphor space, to come up with a space that seems to be well composed, but never overdone. But then I decide on what is ‘done’. It’s hard. Learning when a piece is finished is hard. You never want to overdo things, or the piece starts to decay.
I make art to make sense. There’s nothing more satisfying to me than connecting seemingly disparate bits of knowledge, in a way that lights the path forward.
Definitely, especially writing this. I always get tripped up on things that scare me. I realised last night that the most precious resource is time. It’s the only thing you don’t get back. So it makes logical sense to start.
But if whatever I do feels like dying, or a dishonour to my legacy, it can feel worse than dying. It feels cringe. It reminds me that I am really bad at things before I get the chance to be really good at things. Even writing this, I realise how inelegant my storytelling is when confronted with the page, even though I always know what to say in real life, to the point where I surprise myself with finesse. This is where I remind myself that the thing that is confronting to my ego is actually the most beneficial to approach, for my spiritual growth.
Indeed, much of my art comes from the conscious decision to explore what I find quite scary. So I suppose if I am somewhat petrified, I am doing well, and truly living life in unchartered territory. If I am completely stuck, I find that I need to scrape out the bottom of my emotional barrel, and really feel all the hurt that I felt, for letting haters take ahold of my inner voice. I needed to love the hater within me, and know that she had her talons out to protect what was special about her, her own light. Maybe what she needed was just the ability to be crap at things, and to be lighthearted about it. Or to be surrounded by love for being the little weirdo she is.
Sometimes I’m afraid of expressing myself because it’s too much truth. Too much of myself that I’m sharing. Showing my flaws and pain in public is super scary, as is sharing my experience, especially to strangers. It’s already hard enough showing up as someone bearing resounding goodness, as people can hate on me, and with that, I wish I could share that though things look good, I can still be in pain. If I show my struggles, however, people may find even more reason to attack me. But at the same time, I realise all human emotions and experiences, no matter how obscure and niche, are pretty relatable. And even if they’re not, I think they’re beautiful, and dope for just being.
I’ve been angry. I’ve felt hurt. I’ve felt shame, embarrassment, worthlessness and despair. Being dope doesn’t make you immune from shittiness. I believe that the more I can accept myself in all forms, the more I can be liberated, and the more I can have power to liberate others. Sometimes I need to remember that all storytelling is a lie, or some kind of fabrication, and that it’s okay to tell my story that is obscured or made beautiful as if through a prism, or through metaphors. This is the art of making life bearable.
Sometimes, though, I think of healing as indulgence. Getting obsessed with the act of healing can paradoxically create more opportunity to affirm trauma, and prolong how raw your wounds are to the world. Listening to the audiobook version of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art was the first crack of light that made me realise how preoccupied I was with my misfortune and victimhood, that I had failed to remember just how lucky I am to have received every gift I have ever received. And moreover, taking stock of what I had and not what had been taken from me, I realised how well equipped I was to fulfil my purpose.
I freaking love architecture. I’ve always wanted to build my dream house. It’s only a matter of time and resources, now. I want to create the spaciousness to explore music more deeply and collaboratively.
In year 13, I had a year to work on a certain field of interest for my painting class. I had just transferred to ACG Senior, which had the best painting teacher in the world, Andrew Strachan. And I decided to look at art, mathematics, and creation itself.
Basically, I was learning maths and physics through idealised, simplified, elegant models, that seemed to explain certain phenomena in the world - like the motion of bodies through air, and about certain shapes, but I wasn’t learning anything about the way things grow, how life forms, or how things decay. I was motivated to bridge the gap between what I thought was the aesthetic cleanliness of lines and motion I had found described in the mathematics and physics classes I was taking, and what I deemed to be messy, complex, and maybe even wretched; the human body, and decaying organic forms.
What I found was a deep history of our relationship of our bodies to numbers, and how our sense of maths was actually tied to our bodies in the first place. This deep work started with seeing how we use our 10 fingers to count, and how that underlies our base-10 number system. And from that, how the hands and patterns on our hands explain functions & geometries like right angles, spirals, and sine waves. How sense-making in human history has arisen from finding patterns in our hands, and stars, and how these eventually became maps for telling our fortunes, and eventually how we would navigate our waters as early naval settlers.
I also looked at attempts at rationalising the human body against geometric ideals, such as the Vitruvian Man, by Leonardo Da Vinci. Then seeing how natural phenomena like aging, the act of perceiving different wavelengths of light, and menstrual cycles are linked to relationships in nature. Then also seeing how physics can describe seemingly chaotic phenomena, like bubbles and the turbulent surfaces of water. This then culminated in a unified painting of different spheres at different scales, like egg cells, flesh, planets, and stars, following a Fibonacci spiral.
Emergence is also why I so value biodiversity, and why I find our Anthropogenic Mass Extinction event so deeply upsetting. These species are the greatest creations one could fathom - they are stories of life playing out over billions of years - and they are getting obliterated. From nature’s 8.7 million species, we are just 1, and there’s so much to learn. Even things we thought we invented, evolved in nature, like gears in the form of insect legs.
It’s hard to choose, but I definitely believe ‘Going Native’ to be a masterpiece. Mainly, it’s because it has a quality of vibrating in front of my very eyes even while I’m sober, which is so wild to me. It is endlessly surprising. Every square inch has an arrestingly interesting interaction. I could get lost and keep on finding something interesting. From conception to completion, it spoke out to me like freestyle poetry.
I also translated it into a dress with my talented fashion designer friend Jenny Ruan, based out of Auckland. I love how beautiful I look in it, as it was designed exactly to my measurements, and how this feels like the monumental start of my fashion label. I want my fashion to make people feel like ART, which is why the made-to-measure aspect is important.
I hope to do this all digitally using 3D phone scanning to get every body’s form, CLO3D (cloth simulation & fashion design software), and sublimation printing. What this next evolution is, is for us all to contemplate what it means to make something well (that is, with fair wages, and as low waste as possible) in the 21st century, by bridging the artisanal and the digital.
I think art has the power to blow your worldview wide open. And since art lives in the world and shapes the way we move around it, it actively asks us to react to it. Art can change the world.
I worked myself into the niche of climate change-centered design to minimise suffering. The systems that be are assaults to people, to Mother Earth, and keep those who are already down, down forever, unless we decide to change everything.
As I mentioned before, I grew up in the shop, selling to mostly Pasifika and immigrant communities. I would be mortified that the products we sold would break all the time, and everything, made of plastic, would come individually packaged in plastic packaging again. Bins and bins of rubbish, and bunches of products all eventually thrown away in the shop, or in homes. These were all they afford. So in the end, poor people can only have things that break.
Indeed, so many paradigms of sustainable product design such as the abilities to withstand use, be refurbished, returned, resold, and such, are expensive. Even basic things like providing fair working conditions and not polluting the water and air near manufacturing plants cost more. And when producers call, manufacturers are put into competition to cut costs and force their labourers to work more. And none of this is standardised for the world to know, unless people do their due diligence, which itself seems a luxury. To be honest, it shouldn’t be up to the consumer, but they do deserve to know.
I long for a world where the things we have are special, and made intentionally. And cherished. But in order for that to happen, we need to be wealthier with time and money, instead of in struggle mode all the time. This requires systemic change. It causes me to wonder, is it possible to create an economic system that can support us to play into kindest nature?
That’s why my cofounders Dion Brandt-Sims, Greyson Assa, and I, all Stanford grads, started ENTITY. We hope to bring our creative, engineering, and political powers to help the world remediate, and create new models for how things can be. There is so much reinvention and learning we can do to create a world that feels good and healthy. We are in the right time to start.
Vertiver, a New Delhi based sustainability consultancy, commissioned me to do an in-person research & action immersion to investigate what to do with a particularly nasty material, PVC Flex. PVC Flex is a mixed material; a sandwich of PVC & nylon mesh, and is thus unrecyclable. It is used as a banner for printing advertising on. At every stage of its value chain, from production to degradation, it leeches carcinogens & endocrine blockers into the atmosphere.
I talked to local trashpickers to understand their tech literacy, and investigated how the material travels via market value & opportunity for upcycling. Eventually, a trash marketplace & coordination app was prototyped, as well as an accord presented to CEO’s of JC Decaux India, the advertising giants, to request they switch to a recylable alternative.
One Spring quarter in 2018, I participated in a class called Responsive Structures, which was taught by an architect, Beverley Choe. The idea of the class was that every year, they give you a new material to work with, and to explore its aesthetic, symbolic, and structural qualities, to create a conceptual large scale installation on the grounds of the Anderson Collection, the wonderful Modern Art collection on campus.
I think this was one of my favourite classes. It brought together 12 students of different ages and disciplines, to come up with a single form. Our assigned material was PETG, a thermoplastic. It had brilliant clarity, stiffness, yet pliability. We were provided steel mesh as a small scale prototyping tool. A classmate, Nicole Aw, came up with a ball form, which captured the attention of Beverley, who encouraged to play further.
Eventually, I came up with an arch of bubbles, which the rest of the team crafted force analyses, and large scale fibre glass moulds and fixtures to ensure we could scale this up. Meanwhile, I came up with a meditation or poem, as well as a name, that seemed to capture the vibe of the piece, Nebulate, as a way to ponder the way plastic has infiltrated our biosphere, and our bodies.
I’m currently leading a project a research project focused on visioning and building a Doughnut Economics framework for Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) that shows what the city might look like if it were regenerative at heart, centring the wisdom and voices of the indigenous Māori people of Aotearoa New Zealand.
If you’re not sure what Doughnut Economics is about, it’s 2 concentric circles, and a way of measuring how healthy a society is. One circle is social factors, and the other is planetary boundaries. Kate Raworth, the Oxford Economist who wrote Doughnut Economics, put the social on the inside, and the outside circle she set as the ‘ecological ceiling’.
Juhi Shareef of Project Moonshot co-developed a Doughnut model with a Maori leader in ecology, Teina Boasa-Dean, that inverted the circles to put the planetary boundaries on the inside, and the social factors on the outside, thus positing that the planet is the basis, and the grounds upon which humans can flourish outwards.
My team are members of the Auckland Global Shapers community, who are young people in major cities across the world affiliated with the World Economic Forum. This group formed when Shruthi Vijayakumar, an ex-shaper who helped form the Doughnut Economics Action Lab with Kate Raworth, brought us together to imagine an Auckland City portrait of where we’re at, how we got here, and how we can move forward with inspiration from Western science, and Te Ao Maori.
I think new technology can help us understand each other more truly, in expressive and artistic ways. I was working on this wild brain computer interface activated animation called The Human Mood Ring, with my collaborators, Anna Brewer, Lou Lai, and Vlad Ilic, at the AR House LA residency. Basically, if you think happy thoughts, the flowers bloom. If you feel sad, the flowers close. And this is real. It’s trained to react to her exact surface brain wave patterns when feeling these emotions.
Needless to say, this was mind-blowing. This technology is just getting started, and has great potential, as well as really harrowing ethical challenges if wielded wrong. I hope that with my creative process, and for advocating for Neuro-tech ethics at conferences like I was lucky to do this year at Games for Change 2022, that the technology can be steered to a benevolent hive-mind rather than a mind-controlled dystopia.
I have gotten real moments of glory in my time, and had awards ceremonies to attend, which I loved. Ya girl likes to pull up in full glam, ready to be celebrated. But overall, I like to see awards as little flecks of gold that I pick up to help me shine along the way. The way is the most important. Awards are useful since they embody a set of criteria that can help you find people who have integrity in their work, and standards of excellence. It also helps to find people who feel like they are worthy of recognition, who aren’t shy to put their work out there to infect minds and change the world.
Receiving awards has instilled within me a belief in my abilities in a way that tangibly gives me a platform of esteem even in periods when I’m not achieving anything, but at the same time, my inner voice holds me hostage to my history of nailing it when I can’t function, even on a basic level.
This is when I let go of any expectations of winning, and just focus on being healthy, connected, and supported. Excellence springs from me naturally when I achieve a good balance with myself.
I’d like to be real, but to be honest, I’ve been too timid to post for the longest time, since I cannot post anything resembling a coherent narrative. I’ve been living messy. 3 years ago COVID ripped me from the true first place I felt at home, Stanford. Ever since, I’ve been vying for this hyper-ambitious visa called the ‘Aliens of Extraordinary Ability’ to take me back and set my life up again. It’s a beast. I have to get hundreds of pages of accolades and and press, which is hard for me, because being seen flares my social anxiety/fuels my ego, and I have historically jumped from creative project to creative project because that’s what I felt was most safe.
It’s NOT been glamorous to be me at times. I had withstood quite a lot of damage during the start of the pandemic, and continuously, getting affected by people’s shadows along the journey. It’s at times left me welled up with depression, PTSD, and true embodied deep loneliness and panic. To restart my life, I had to leave New Zealand with basically no plan but a single contract with ENTITY, and I basically learned how to design, manage client relations, negotiate, and pay taxes all on the fly.
What’s cooked is, psychologically, I need to have a sense of home and financial stability to build my work, art, food, and workout environments, all of which would build my self esteem, enough to apply for all the things I need for this visa. But every time I move, I have to readjust my life, which is expensive on every level. And boy, have I moved. I have lived in 36 different places in one and a half years. From the outside, it looks like I have travelled everywhere and seen and done everything cool under the sun, but it’s actually been an involuntary move for me to chase opportunities and accolades. And what’s worse, is that I’ve formed and left ‘home’ so many times, that it truly feels like my social telomeres have shortened significantly.
If anything, I want people to know that I have felt more nervous, worthless, un-beautiful, disempowered and on the verge of death than I ever had in my earlier life. My art challenges me. And so do trifling people. And so does my own resistance to my destiny.
But I’ve grown too to see my truth, and to witness the surprise of everyone living their whole, brilliant lives. And while I have traveled to see the whole range of humanity, it also tells me that the work is never done, and that in order for me to preserve my strength, I must choose my faith in universe-scale love, learn my lessons, and move on to pick and choose what is and isn’t for me.
Now I’ve stopped trying to present anything coherent. I am living a beautiful wreck. And I’m allowed to, shit. And when I’m flexing, it’s because I’m truly dedicated to the aesthetic of living a life I want to live, even if it comes with a cost. I’ve earned the right to.
Shit, this is a good question. First instinct is that she would be a singer. Or a scientist. Or a cult leader. Or a gangster. Second instinct is to say that I’m doing all of these things, in some ways.
Strangely, I do feel at sometimes mundane decisions or occurrences like missing a train, or taking a different physical path, that my ‘life tree’ would split into another branch. And that’s scary. Since so many of my life’s wins have occurred as a result of chance encounters with the right people at the right time. It’s truly unfathomable how up to chance even any of our existences are. I tend to live life with the principle of minimising regrets, so hopefully the universe I’m in happens to be the one that contains the Kaixi that does that.
Aliens probably exist, given the vastness of the universe. Any way they evolve biological mechanisms will appear to us like superpowers, but if you look at even how squids turn from transparent to opaque on Earth, is that also not a superpower? If they happen to be sentient, I hope they outgrow violence and war, and become able to compute and alchemise a maximally balanced coexistence with all life forms on their home planet.
If you take an Alien’s point of view, which I often do, you may feel that ‘civilisation’ an absurdity that had no distinct reason to become this way. And we have certainly screwed up in some really massive ways. (Thanks, Oil Companies.) When I think about God, I think about some teen hacker on some computer, who happened to create a vast simulation that is our universe. In the collective imagination, God embodies the utmost moral positive. But God is also a weapon.
Definitely Leonardo Da Vinci, to see if we would be homies. Also to see how he got the sweet patronage setup he did.
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