skip navigation

HI Faculty Fellow Spotlight: Millie Chen

January 25, 2021

Each month, we will feature one of the Humanities Institute Faculty Fellows and their answers to a short questionnaire. This month’s featured fellow is Millie Chen whose [Virtual] Scholars@Hallwalls talk, “Silk Road Songbook: Notes on Making Art Under Censorship and Globalization” takes place on Friday, February 5th at 4pm.

What material(s) sparked your current project that you are now working on as a faculty fellow?

Silk Road Songbook (SRS) is a culmination of many years of making artwork about social injustice by focusing on invisible histories of the land, and harnessing the power of the human voice through music. My past projects contemplated landscapes in relation to atrocities, and grew out of my rage at how injustices and atrocities continue to be perpetrated across the globe. SRS tackles injustice more optimistically, taking its cue from the sway of protest songs and the concept of the earworm, something unexpected that stubbornly lodges itself in one’s psyche. Singing builds fortitude; singing together builds collective joy and defiance. Sound is underrated in a vision dominant society. Herein lies its potency. As a “visual artist,” I value the subversive capacity of non-visual, visceral elements like sound, scent and the haptic to interrupt habits of viewing.

What has been a source of entertainment these past months as we deal with coronavirus? Any specific recommendations (books, podcasts, film/tv, etc.)?

Walking, walking, walking on the land. We live in a forest in the Niagara Peninsula, and I’m enchanted and comforted by the fact that this place is deeply occupied by non-human life, long before we arrived and long after we depart. There is always drama on the land. Deer running away from us, a fawn mistaking my husband for its mother, coyote tracks tracking our tracks, bits of squirrel hide left behind after a kill, blue jays chasing hawks, crows intimidating starlings, plants in constant negotiation and/or battle with one another, tree buds poised for spring.

What is your favorite place outdoors in WNY?

Where the Niagara (Onguiaahra*) River (Strait) issues from Lake Erie, the water looks tranquil but runs deep and turbulent. This water pushes large chunks of spring ice downriver toward the Falls, and provokes the boats that forge their way upstream. After 20+ years of crisscrossing (by car, boat, bicycle, on foot) the water at this meeting point, my awe never diminishes. Its potency lies not only in its sublime physicality but also in its geopolitical and historical significance. At a personal scale, my place in the world changes profoundly based on which side of the water I’m on.


Is there a UB colleague whose research or work you think others should know more about?

Dina Benbrahim is an exciting young designer who recently joined the full-time faculty at the Dept. of Art. Her research and practice are grounded in her Moroccan roots, informed by feminism, and driven by her conviction that design can and should play an essential role in the reimagining of equitable futures. Her current research investigates the utilization of design for collective action with a focus on social justice for marginalized communities. Dina’s work has received numerous international awards, and has been featured in exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad. She is passionate about teaching, exposing students to thinking processes and design solutions at a global level. We are fortunate to have her lively presence at UB.

Originating as a 19th century parlor game, popularized by Marcel Proust’s responses, pick a question from the so-called “Proust Questionnaire” to answer.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

I generally don’t dwell on reincarnation, but lately I’ve been musing about how wonderful it would be to become a Canada Goose (N.B. this response is nationalism-free). I’ve been observing them more closely over the past many months as I walk daily on the land, and my admiration and delight grow. My habit is to walk in late afternoon. Their habit is to fly from feeding ground to nesting ground at that time, so our journeys regularly intersect. The wonder and joy of soaring through the air would be multiplied by the act of soaring together – with my fellow geese. We mutually negotiate the sky with our flaps and our honks and our sleek collective aerodynamism. We accompany our elderly and injured to the ground so that they can rest. We care and look out for one another. And have fun doing it.

Our thanks to Millie for sharing with us! For more information about Millie and the rest of the 2020-21 HI Faculty Fellow cohort, please visit our Faculty Fellows page.