How I identify is constantly changing. At this very moment, I identify first and foremost as an artist. In Western society, people say their name, their age, and now pronouns and ethnicity and sexuality and stuff. So that’s usually how I introduce myself. Like, “Hi, my name is Chella Man, I’m 23 years old. I’m transmasculine, gender queer, Jewish, Chinese, deaf, and an artist.” In my ideal world, I’d just be like, “Hi, I’m Chella,” and then figure out how to be with people from there.
I was born in a very conservative small town in central Pennsylvania. There was no representation around me. There was no queer culture, there was no deaf guidance, and it was a predominantly white town. I struggled a lot with understanding who I was and what possibilities were open to me. I come from a very academic family, so I worked really hard in school and was able to graduate early, thank goodness. I could not spend another year in central Pennsylvania.
How I identify is constantly changing. At this very moment, I identify first and foremost as an artist.
I want people to understand that my practice is very expansive and not necessarily one thing. I’m not just a director, or just a curator, or just an actor. I don’t limit myself because I’ve been asked my whole life to limit myself and I am never going to do that again. I’ve had to be my own representation. Now I continuously seek out interesting projects and different ways to apply my creativity to a mix of mediums.
I came to New York City to study virtual reality programming at Parsons, but unfortunately, the program was not accessible for a deaf student. I had conversations with the director of the program, but they didn’t really know what to do and it wasn’t helpful. That summer, I applied to a bunch of places to be a barista and as soon as I said I was deaf, no one would hire me. I could just tell. I probably applied to 50 places, which is ridiculous.
So I found other ways of earning income. I would go shopping at L Train Vintage and Buffalo Exchange and upcycle clothes by painting on them. That led to my first collection for Opening Ceremony when I was 19. Things snowballed after that. I actively sought out any possible way that I could create. If you go out and meet people, pitch ideas and projects, and really care about them and the people involved, there are so many avenues that open up. That’s just how you build community. I was also doing a lot of activism and going to a lot of protests.
I thought I was going to be limited but I actually felt more liberated during those 14 days that I had no access to sound than I’ve ever felt in my life.
I started documenting my medical transition on social media. The beauty about social media is you don’t have to wait for large corporations to hand you a platform, you can create one yourself and give yourself agency that way. I was offered the opportunity to give a TED Talk, which led to Penguin approaching me to write a book about my life. It was right before the pandemic hit in 2020.
When I was in Venice for the Biennale, I lost my cochlear implant. I was a bit scared at first because it’s the main source of navigation I’ve had through my life. It allowed me to feel connected to people. And I wasn’t around any deaf people, just a lot of hearing people. I thought I was going to be limited, but I actually felt more liberated during those 14 days in which I had no access to sound than I’ve ever felt in my life. I wasn’t straining so hard to read lips, I wasn’t pushing my body to take the puzzle pieces of verbal communication and process them in my brain. Instead, I asked hearing people to do the work. I asked them to type things out or write things down.
I don’t think I realized how tired I was before that. When hearing people actually took the initiative, I could relax. I had so much more brain space and energy at the end of the day. I’ve always suspected and understood that being deaf around hearing people was extremely draining, but I guess I didn’t realize the extent. I wasn’t as tired of a person as I thought I was. Rather than being immobilized, I was inspired.
I started storyboarding a conceptual art film full of visual metaphors exploring how I am a cyborg. I literally have wiring in my head and a magnet inside of my skull and machinery behind my ears all the time. Interestingly enough, when I got back to New York, Nowness reached out to commission a project about the history of cochlear implants for the Powerhouse Museum. I emailed back immediately like, “This is wild and you will never believe this, but I’m already working on that.”
It came at such an incredible time. I had planned to use my own money to do it because I really cared about the film, but they had a budget. That gave me the resources to hire a really good team. The Device That Turned Me Into A Cyborg Was Born The Same Year I Was is going to be the most technically developed film that I’ve ever had access to. I’m very excited about that project.
It was so refreshing to have conversations about what brought my disabled community pure joy.
Disabled people are often asked to make work about our traumas and our sufferings, so for the group exhibition I curated at 1969 Gallery, I wanted to focus on “pure joy” and allow the people in my life to explore what it means to them. It was beautiful and heartbreaking to ask that question because there were some close friends of mine who have never been asked it before. Instead, they’re asked to talk all the time about the discrimination they face and the trauma in their life. It was so refreshing to have conversations about what brought my disabled community pure joy. The director of 1969 Gallery, Q, is queer and Asian, and the gallery is just so community-based and such a family. I knew that if I presented this show to them, they would do it with genuine care. So I did and they did.
They consulted so many different disability organizations like Tilting the Lens and really handled it with their hearts. It was interesting to see how all the different disabled artists of various ages and ethnicities interpreted what joy meant to them. Some artists interpreted it directly, like happiness or euphoria, and centered that in their work. Others still centered pain and suffering, and the joy was found more so in the process of creation rather than the final piece itself. That range of the interpretation of language and unpacking linguistics was really beautiful for me to watch. I didn’t anticipate that. The whole process taught me a lot.
To meditate while having smoked is a different experience than to meditate on nothing.
For the past year, I’ve meditated 20 minutes in the morning and 20 minutes at night. It’s called Transcendental Meditation. I don’t often smoke, but when I do, I meditate pretty intensely. At this point, I feel like I can reach the kind of relaxation that I would want if I were to use cannabis through meditation. Now I use cannabis more so to help me sleep or to watch the thoughts in my brain float by in a different sense. It definitely changes your awareness. To meditate while having smoked is a different experience than to meditate on nothing. I feel like sometimes it literally forces your brain to work differently, it forces a new perspective, and I appreciate that I have that option.
Once in a while I’ll smoke with friends and stuff. It depends on how much I smoke, but if I smoke a lot, I can’t really hear them. It takes so much clarity for my brain to process sound that sometimes I feel like being high disrupts it. So it’s best if I don’t wear my implant when I’m smoking around hearing friends. If I’m with deaf friends, it doesn’t really matter, we can just sign.
It’s best if I don’t wear my implant when I’m smoking around hearing friends. If I’m with deaf friends, it doesn’t really matter.
I first encountered cannabis when I was really young, maybe 14, and I didn’t really like it. I know my brain really well, because I’ve had to learn who I am and understand my thoughts at a very early age. So to have that awareness taken away, even with alcohol, is something I don’t like. When I first smoked, I don’t think I even really knew how to make sense of it. I was just like, This feels weird. I didn’t have language past that. I was in New York, actually, doing pre-college at SVA. I smoked with some friends and I just did not know what to do. I remember pizza tasting really great. And then later my mom found out and that wasn’t the best. It was a funny moment.
I’m very close with my parents, now more so than ever. We have always been close, but I was just so frustrated as a child, which was really frustrating to, I think, everyone in my family. I felt so much pain and neither of my parents or my sister or anyone I was around could really understand the discrimination I was experiencing as a young deaf, queer, and trans child in a predominantly white environment.
I didn’t need words when I could paint.
I think because I didn’t have access to language, art was the only healthy way I knew how to release everything inside of me. I literally couldn’t connect my thoughts and analyze things because I didn’t have the framework to even go through those motions. But I didn’t need words when I could paint.
I consider art the creation of anything from nothing. One of the earliest memories I have of creating was getting a trash bag and going around the house asking my family members if they had anything that they didn’t want. By the end of the day, I would have a trash bag full of junk and from that junk I would make time machines and robots. What I realize now is that, essentially, I was making ways to escape. Using cardboard boxes to take me somewhere else, maybe some world that I would understand, or where I could understand myself.
I also drew very early on. I always had access to a pen and a paper in school, so I would create worlds on paper that way, too. That was how I survived for so long. It’s definitely how I still survive. Now more than ever, because I have more resources and more avenues. I’m creating films and elevator installations and welding medieval steel to look like headphones and armor. I could not do that when I was in elementary school. Maybe I could imagine these things or I could draw them, but I couldn’t do them. So expanding my mediums now is part of that joyful possibility that I was touching on before, and it’s just so exciting to explore.
I never wanted to hold onto a dream in case it didn’t happen.
It feels like heaven has become earth and I’m just so shocked to be alive and to have these opportunities. It feels like a dream come true. I know that phrase is said so often that it’s been watered down, but it truly feels like that for me. I never expected this to happen. I never wanted to hold onto a dream in case it didn’t happen. The fact that I’m allowing myself to believe for the first time that this is real is so overwhelming. It’s stunning to be given the opportunity to make art.
Relationships and love and community are at the center of everything I do. It comes first. That’s the point of being alive. I don’t think that you can really lead a life of contentment if you’re centering something other than the relationships in your life. I don’t feel like I’ve always had community—I think that’s a privilege people don’t often realize is a privilege. But when I do experience it, it’s just a level of love and connection that I’m like, How could you not center it? How could you choose something over that?
Love is this guiding, innate, powerful force that is at the center of relationships and is at the center of passions and desires and identity. I feel like to others that would sound cheesy, but I genuinely don’t believe that cheesiness exists if you truly mean what you’re saying. It’s most imperative that you love yourself above all. It affects the way you love other people, it affects everything that you do in your entire life. I don’t think love is easy. I think love is work and love is really fucking hard sometimes.
What I consider true, authentic love of another is so selfless. Loving someone for the expansion of themselves, whatever that might mean, whether that includes you, whether that doesn’t include you. Just loving them for their own journey and truly seeing them for their individual personhood and their physical self, but also for their soul that you can never see, but you can feel.
Being gentle with yourself, reminding yourself that you have to actively take the time to love yourself, that’s a thing that takes energy and intention.
There’s also internal love. Reminding yourself that you are complex. Accepting that what you perceive as faults are just ways of being and ways of experiencing life. We really are our worst critics—everyone is. Being gentle with yourself, reminding yourself that you have to actively take the time to love yourself—that’s a thing that takes energy and intention. Reminding myself to meditate, drink water, to not look at my emails until I have a set time, being really intentional about when other people take energy from me, being intentional about the energy I let in, the people that I let in. Taking time to cook my food. There are so many ways to love yourself. I think a lot of people don’t know what that looks like for them. We are never taught that. Well, at least I wasn’t.
Love is this abstract and wild thing that I also know nothing about at all. I’m always still learning. I don’t feel like I’m resisting things when I’m connected to love, I feel more like I’m surrendering to something. We have so many rigid, controlling thoughts that may have kept us safe and protected at times, but they’re not always needed and we can let them go. It takes so much effort to surrender, but that’s what vulnerability is. You’re letting your heart be open, which can be the scariest thing. I’m always down to talk about love.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Chella Man photographed by Ryan Duffin at his studio in Brooklyn. If you like this Conversation, please feel free to share it with friends or enemies. Subscribe to our newsletter here.