Through the open door of a storefront in Manhattan’s Chinatown last October, you may have spied a long white table reaching out towards the street, covered in tangerines, metal teapots, laptops, and microphones. A group of architects wearing headphones were inside, beckoning passer-byers to come in, sit down, and use the WiFi. “So, how did you make your first dollar?” they may have asked, pouring you a cup of tea.
It’s a question that had preoccupied Dong-Ping Wong, the founder of architecture studio FOOD and host of Food Radio, throughout the three weeks running his guerrilla radio show in a storefront off East Broadway. “Nobody talks about the mechanics of how they ended up doing what they do,” he says. “When you ask creatives how they made their first dollar though, it often leads to a conversation about the mundane mechanics that actually led to important moments in their career.”
Now available to stream online, the 50+ episodes recorded during Food Radio’s pop-up feature creatives of all stripes talking about the ins-and-outs of their practises. You’ll hear Karen Wong discuss the path that led her to an appointment as deputy director of the New Museum; creative studio Playlab talking about striking a balance between personal and client work; graphic designer Hassan Rahim passionately extolling his love of the German autobahn.
For independent publishing enthusiasts, there are episodes featuring LinYee Yuan, founder of MOLD Magazine, Felix Burrichter, founder of PIN-UP, as well as the team behind Montez Press: each candidly discusses the inner workings of artist-run publishing ventures. Wong asks all of his impressive interviewees—which also include chef Angela Dimayuga and creative director Heron Preston—about what their ordinary working day looks like; you’ll hear extensively about email threads, meetings, and commutes. That’s not to say that Food Radio is boring—quite the opposite—its content serves to demystify creative work and the idea that it’s impossible to make a living as an artist.
“It’s like the ‘everybody poops’ thing,” says Wong. “Your heroes also had to email random people to get where they are today. I wanted our audience to see that their heroes aren’t magical. They make awesome stuff but they’re just humans—and you might be able to make it as a creative, doing what you love, too.”
Food Radio taps into the tradition of community radio through serving its locality by promoting women, people of color, and those who live in the Chinatown neighborhood. FOOD itself is located there, and Wong lives just a 15-minute walk away. Indeed, for FOOD, the production of a radio station is an act of civic engagement akin to its other architectural projects that focus on facilitating public space, such as the +POOL project (a plan to float an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the East River). A pop-up radio station brings the kinds of conversations that happen behind closed doors—in back rooms at galleries or in fashion studios—out onto the streets of Chinatown; it encourages the community around FOOD’s office to drop by and talk to a variety of artists—many of whom look like them—about how they make money doing what they love.
“In New York City, one in four Asian Americans live below the poverty line,” says Wong. “I was shocked to learn this. A lot of people culturally don’t think of Asians as struggling though. FOOD works with a nonprofit called Apex for Youth, which helps underserved kids get into college. What we saw there is that kids don’t really feel like they have a lot of options, and an arts career definitely doesn’t seem like a viable thing to do.
“From learning about the neighborhood, but also from my personal upbringing, I realised that there’s often this question that emerges: ‘Why would you pursue a life of creativity, and not the classic path of a traditional money-making career?’ It’s difficult to imagine a career in the arts, especially if you’ve never seen a role model that looks like you. So we thought: Lets just bring a bunch of people into this space that look like the kids around here, so that maybe someone will come in and realize, ‘Oh shit, I could actually paint my way to a career or be an architect’.”
With Food Radio located opposite a public library, FOOD staffers regularly stopped by to invite kids and teens into the space for a host of happenings initiated by interviewees—including pickling workshops and drawing lessons. “The format of the radio wasn’t what we originally planned,” says Dong. “We wanted to bring people into the space and facilitate conversation. Radio became the thing that brought people in, and then radio generated the things that happened in the space.”