Prisca Choe and Wynton Wong of Chaotic Neutral: Finding Joy in Chaos, Community, and Clouds
Our new line of acrylic laser cut earrings are extra special. Not only is each pair handmade and full of meaning — from lucky knots to mahjong tiles to red lanterns — they're from a small AAPI- and women-owned local business. Chaotic Neutral was founded by two artists, activists, and longtime friends of Pearl River: Prisca Choe and Wynton Wong. We had the chance to speak with Prisca and Wynton about balancing art and business, the importance of community, and the benefits of watching the clouds.
Where are you from and where did you grow up? What were your childhoods like?
PRISCA: I grew up outside Philly and went to school in Philly proper. My parents are very very active in in the Korean community in Philadelphia and spent most of my childhood putting together Korean cultural programs and events.
I grew up with a lot of Korean heritage programs without really understanding what was going on. I remember finding it all not very interesting and taking it for granted. I also grew up doing art things. I remember I used to carry two bags from elementary school all the way through high school. One had all my schoolwork and one had all the tools and materials for whatever art project I was working on. My siblings and I had very little in common and we couldn't see friends since we lived so far from them so I spent all my time making and collecting things outside by myself.
How did your parents feel about your pursuing art?
PRISCA: They're both engineers and were both pretty much like, "Hmm, we don't know this will work out." To be honest, they really didn't like it but they (and everyone else) saw it coming. I can't quite remember when they came around, but at this point, they have their academic kids while I'm the family "soul cleanser," as my mom once referred to me. Pretty sure they're half proud, half resigned to it.
When did you come to New York?
PRISCA: I came to New York for college. I went to Gallatin to put together a major to pursue forensic psychology, but I ended up switching. Since Gallatin is next door to Tisch [School of the Arts] and my dorm was next to Steinhardt [School of Culture, Education, and Human Development], just by proximity I got drafted to work on projects with the film and art kids. Eventually I changed majors.
How about you, Wynton? Where did you grow up?
WYNTON: I'm originally from Hong Kong. I was born there, emigrated to North Carolina in the late '90s, and grew up in the south. I was a pretty southern kid. There weren't a lot of Asian people there at the time. But I think as a function of technology, it was easy to stay connected to and know my heritage. And we were lucky to be able to travel quite a bit. I kind of grew up everywhere. I have family in San Francisco and Canada, and we were able to see each other regularly.
From what I read, you're into writing, art, film — a little bit of everything.
WYNTON: A little bit of everything is the best way to define it. I was definitely a STEM-minded kid. But my mom really appreciated film, television, art, and storytelling. We watched a lot of movies, going to the theater and Blockbuster once a week. We had satellite TV and watched all the Hong Kong shows and movies. I'm still influenced by my mom's taste in what I do now.
She and my dad both worked in business on the artistic side. My mom worked in fashion and my dad in advertising. They both have the understanding of creativity and business, as well as those harder technical skills.
In high school I started doing more film things. It was also peak internet time. I was building my own weird form of storytelling. In college I started to have multiple interests. I was interested in science and tech but also film and art. The intersection between all those things.
Did you know each other before you started Chaotic Neutral?
PRISCA: We knew of each other before the pandemic, but became much closer during that time. The first time we really worked together was during the fundraiser for the fire that burned down 70 Mulberry Street. Every day we were calling each other in production mode. We got really, really close, and realized we wanted to work together.
Did you start Chaotic Neutral during the pandemic?
PRISCA: During the pandemic, we did once-a-week accountability calls just so we were doing something. We both work in film and obviously there were no film projects. We felt creatively pent up and would call each other once a week to have some sort of regular check-in about making the things we wanted to make. Each week we had a theme and would make something or share something interesting we saw to fit that theme. Sometimes I would just make something I just felt like making and make up a reason it fit the theme.
I ended up buying a laser cutter since I felt like I needed to make something. At the time I was really obsessed with stained glass so playing with acrylic seemed like the closest alternative. I'm also a perfectionist who lacks patience so hand cutting pieces was not an option if I didn't want a graveyard of half-finished art projects.
Chaotic Neutral started because I needed a way to get funding for all the acrylic and other materials for the larger art pieces I wanted to make.
Where does the name come from?
PRISCA: My process for making anything is pretty chaotic. I just identified with the Chaotic Neutral. I was just making things that were nice and felt good. I just needed little happy moments during the long pandemic.
How do you work together on Chaotic Neutral?
WYNTON: Chaotic Neutral is really Prisca's work. She's the one designing and assembling everything. I mostly exist as a minder. My background isn't very much in materials work. But I'm good at project management and I love working with artists.
These business and organizational elements are actually not fair to expect of the artist. They're often antithetical to their process and work. I love filling that gap. Letting artists be artists while making sure to care for the artistic process and that people are being fed and compensated fairly. That Prisca isn't underpricing herself. [Laughs] That's where I fit in.
I'm lucky to have my mom who has tons of experience and checks my numbers, as well as a support network of friends who are so generous with their time and knowledge. We're very lucky to have people who have done this before, who don't view it as a competition thing but as a community thing.
PRISCA: To be honest, if I were on my own I'd be in my room making earrings for myself and my friends and just giving them away. A big reason why Chaotic Neutral is still going is because of the work Wynton does. I can focus on the playful, creative process. My weakness is that I can't express myself adequately through words. To have Wynton means I can express myself in my natural way. It's really helpful.
Asking Wynton to be a part of Chaotic Neutral was hard at first because of the mindset that artists should be hustling and being a whole system within themselves, in addition to making art. These are not things that I can do while preserving the joy that I have while making things. I think it's important to lean into your gifts and create a community where we can share our skills as a powerful whole rather than as one tiny burnt-out person.
WYNTON: Community is fundamental to that. Without it we're just single human beings expected to survive in a system designed to wear us down. To prevent that burnout, we need to surround ourselves with people who support and people with different skills that you. We're lucky to have people like [Pearl River president] Joanne [Kwong] in our community. We didn't think a year ago we'd be in a store like Pearl River. But it's because of Joanne and her generosity and her participation in the community.
I think the feeling is mutual. Joanne has sung your praises, Prisca, as the inscribing and weatherproofing captain for Light Up Chinatown.
PRISCA: Aw that's so nice! I feel really grateful and lucky to have that community. I remember Corky [Lee] was there too. That was the second to last time I saw him before he passed. He wanted to keep things organized and so he put all our jackets and bags on the mannequins [in the not yet opened SoHo Pearl River space]. [Laughs] We wouldn't have those moments without Joanne.
What do you find inspiring?
WYNTON: For me it's always keeping my eyes and ears open for other people's stories. Prisca and I really enjoy looking at older things, myth and folk tales. Anything that gets in those realms. Genre things. A mini collection we're planning combines Prisca's love for all things astronomical with the vibes that I want to maintain in my life. Girls who can do anything in a cute and fashionable way. Who have no fear in expressing what they want to do — and in the cutest way possible.
PRISCA: So much inspiration comes from learning from femme artists in my life. I recently went to a Korean shaman because I was interested in my astrological chart. While I was there, I also asked her about Korean folk tales. She talked about how women and queer folks were erased from Korean history. Growing up I had difficulty connecting with the most readily available materials about my heritage because they were all so intensely through a male lens. I learned from this shaman that we were present but erased later to fit what was a Confucian influence, and afterward a Christian influence. Hearing that was really affirming and got me excited to learn more.
My work has been influenced by that aesthetic of Korean heritage as well as Chinatown where I live. In Chinatown is the first time I felt I had neighbors who are not necessarily the same but willing to bridge the gap of understanding. My neighbors have really influenced so much of what I do. I have always loved Korean motifs but I was motivated to dig deeper because it was fun to come back to my neighbors and talk about what I had learned.
I also spent a lot of the pandemic doing more research on my family history and found the Chinese characters for my Korean name all because of my neighbors! Actually, the mahjong earrings were [photographer] Ed Cheng's idea and he was relentless in making sure I made them (for him). I wonder what I would be doing if I didn't live here.
Is there something you're obsessed with right now? That you tell people you have to watch/read/listen to/eat this?
WYNTON: The place I love the most intersects art and technology. It's why I spend too much time on the internet, why I spend time tinkering on things.
Something I'm obsessed with now are VTubers. They're originally from Japan. It's about taking your performers, your streamers, and giving them the ability to build a story, a character, a life with face tracking. Being on the internet, you feel you have to share, build a marketing campaign, build a brand. You set yourself up to be really vulnerable, but at the same time you bury your soul. VTubers provide this extra layer of anonymity and play. You can show authentic sides of yourself but at the same time you're not restricted.
An otherwise more "normal" obsession is this science fiction book, Last and First Idol, which is translated from Japanese. It's a really interesting book. It's a series of short stories about the incorporation of trends, technology, and content, and how it all relates to human behavior.
PRISCA: I'm currently falling into scifi. Growing up I wasn't that interested in it, I realize now, because it was through a western lens. It didn't fit right with me. I watched Princess from the Moon recently, and I loved it. It was so beautiful.
I think some of my difficulty with scifi, especially American, was that you always needed to have agency and a happy ending. Eastern stories and art acknowledge that some things are beyond you, and accept that some things are just part of the process. I enjoy consuming scifi through that lens, the idea that sometimes it just doesn't work out. The situation is beyond your control.
I'm also obsessed with clouds and the moon. I try to go out every day and stare at the moon and clouds. Have you ever seen lenticular clouds? They're clouds that look like spaceships. I saw them for the first time in Las Vegas. I couldn't stop looking at them. I understand why that community has such an interest in aliens.
My last thing is more "normal." [Laughs] It's a game called Gris. It's very simple and cute. It's soothing in a melancholy way. Each level is given a color and represents a different stage of grieving. Each comes with a corresponding ability to get through these levels. It's really nice to have a game that so simply acknowledges and accepts that grieving is a process. That shows it in simple, clean terms while grieving is so messy. I'm not ready to finish the game because I'm not ready to let it go.
Do you have a favorite memory of Pearl River?
WYNTON: It was one of the last art exhibitions at the TriBeCa location [Jerry Ma's "A Chinatown Odyssey"]. I thought there wouldn't be a lot of people. [Editor: There were a lot of people.] But it was so lovely to see all of that. I think people don't quite understand how important this third culture is, the combining of our respective heritages and America pop culture — it creates amazing pieces and portals, and gets you thinking. It was great to see so many people connect over a form that is uniquely American but informed by a non-American lens and aesthetic.
PRISCA: Mine is fairly obvious. Doing the Light Up Chinatown lanterns with Corky in the new Pearl River space. To spend the whole night with neighbors, wearing gas masks, and telling ourselves, "We're going to make this lantern thing work!" Corky puttering around like, "We have to be organized!"
That was actually the first time I ever spoke to Mrs. Chen. She was so nice. I showed up with Corky. I had run into him on the street. He was like, "I heard something is happening." She stuck her head out the door and said, "Is that my friend Corky?" This neighborhood is a community unlike anything I've experienced before. You run into someone on the street and spend all night painting lanterns.Check out the whole Chaotic Neutral collection. You can also read more of our entrepreneur interviews.