November 18, 2003  
Volume 97, Issue 44  

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Sook-Yin Lee tears away the mediated curtain

By Brian Wong
Gazette Staff

In the second part of our conversation with Sook-Yin Lee, the multimedia personality and artist speaks about celebrities, media and that messy Massive Attack interview.


It takes Lee a few moments before she can think of someone whom she has never met, but who she'd like to converse with. Then it dawns on her: "Gosh, it'd be interesting to meet President [George W.] Bush," she laughs. "And I always thought I wanted to meet Michael Jackson, but I almost feel like I've seen a lot of him, too. Although it'd be interesting to still meet the person and be in the room when they're emanating energy - it's so different."

That's part of her goal - sitting down with fawned over celebrities to experience what kind of vulnerable humans they are. She likens it to tearing away the curtain behind The Wizard of Oz. Like Lee herself, the interviewees she loves the most are the ones who leave their curtains unguarded.

"A lot of the pro people I've met are at that level - they're responsive, they're decent; they're not battling ego stuff," she says, name-checking Patti Smith and Allen Ginsberg.

"At the same time, [I had] some really profound conversations with a kid named Shane, who was a squeegee boy working and living on the streets of Toronto in -15 C weather - talking about his struggles, watching him get off the street and become a mechanic [was] very inspirational to me."

But then there are the interview subjects who are a bit more challenging.


In 1998, British trip-hop act Massive Attack entered the Muchmusic "environment" during a Toronto stop of their tour to speak with Lee. As the interview was being aired during the station's daily videoflow, Lee felt it necessary to set up the band's history for the general viewer. But Robert "3D" Del Naja of the band was opposed.

"[He] didn't like my line of questioning and he just upfront said that to me," Lee recalls. She appeared shaken after his response and then offered to let Del Naja talk about whatever he wanted. "And I hit it back at him, and we were just both at odds. But awkward moments like that, live moments, are riveting television - to see a conflict unfold in front of you is like, 'Oh my god! What's going on?!'"

She attributes the moment to a collusion of several factors. "It was this bizarre disconnect of energies, and sometimes rock 'n' roll is like that when you compound them with being on television, in the media and having done all this time on the road. And on TV, you usually don't see people other than the best face possible, and here you have a group of individuals and yourself feeling immensely uncomfortable - to me, that was an amazing moment."

Then there's what you didn't see on TV, after the interview: "[3D] had the time of his life. He really liked being this jester-shitdisturber, and gave me a big hug and was like, 'That was great.'"


Those Muchmusic moments eventually ran Lee down. Unhappy with the increasing corporatization of rock, being sent to interview people she didn't support and jolted by 9/11, she left the station. "I was feeling like my physicality and my psychology was becoming a part of this fragmented, sensory overload where you're hopping all over the place, flicking the channels in your brain constantly," Lee says.

So after taking a year off, Lee re-emerged with CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera and began working on her own projects. Plans are in the works to do shows for her new music group Slan, as well as her own experimental performances she hopes will incorporate her current love of dancing - her own version of dancing, of course.

For Lee, exploring new mediums can be challenging, but she believes the biggest challenge is to transcend the medium and actually communicate. "It's about how to equip yourself with enough knowledge about each of the processes, but also overridingly, how to capture the moment and how to capture the story.

"I think the best art is a mixture of craft and direction, but also giving up to being in the moment, using your intuition to hear where the gold is going to come from. It's those two things - mixing spontaneity with form and structure - that I'm striving for within all of these mediums."



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