May Cat's first memories of her grandmother aren't exactly warm and fuzzy.
When Cat was growing up in Chicago, her grandmother would wake her up for school every morning by blasting Krasue, a Thai soap opera about a ghost with a woman's face and dangling organs instead of a body.
"I'd wake up to a green glow of a floating head and the entrails. That made me who I am," says Cat. "It was like, 'Why is my grandma watching this? Why is she into this? Is every grandma into this?'"
Karmic I, Cat's upcoming art exhibit at media accessibility nonprofit Open Signal, grapples with that complicated memory, and with the idea of culturally manufactured monsters on a broader scale. In the exhibit are video collages of clips from Thai horror movies, including a compilation of female ghosts attacking male characters. In another video installation, Constructing Horror, Cat re-creates the ghost from Krasue with pig and cow hearts and intestines.
It's an exhibit that could've easily defaulted into shock art, but Karmic I is not intended to be macabre. "I love that style, but that's not what it's going to go for," says Cat. "I wanted it to be a little more soft, as if I were to befriend these spirits."
Karmic I is the next in a series of exhibits Open Signal will host between now and November as part of its new media fellowship program. The roster is full of thoughtful, compelling Portland artists whose exhibits promise to challenge preconceived notions and the traditions of contemporary art. Fellows received access to Open Signal's media equipment, classes on how to use the organization's gear, and a mentor to help facilitate their research.
For Cat's exhibit, the research consisted primarily of watching lots of Thai horror movies.
"I'm not a horror movie fan, but I just really wanted to understand them," she says. "So I watched so many ghost movies, some really terrible ones and some really great ones."
The deluge of jump scares, gore and afterlife damnation took somewhat of a toll on Cat's psyche. But part of her goal with Karmic I is to confront the moment when fear blocks our potential for understanding and leads to superstition instead of empathy. So Cat kept watching.
"I was kind of a black sheep in my family, so I started to see my family's anxiety projected onto me," says Cat. "A lot of ghosts look like me—longhaired, Asian women—and they're mostly directed by men. So it's all these Asian femme bodies being manipulated through men. And some movies are by white directors, which you can kind of tell [because] the characters are a little bit flat. So that's another thing, like, oh, that's how they see Asian bodies."
The ghost in Krasue is less of a character and more of an ambient terror that lurks on the edges of the villagers' interpersonal relationships, which take up most of the show. Her traits exist as plot devices and, according to Cat, as a vessel for social messages. There's a pregnant character in Krasue whose baby the ghost wants to eat, but for the most part, her hauntings are brought on by a lack of hygiene. "Wherever it's filthy and disgusting, she's going to be there," says Cat. "That ghost was there for social control. If you were filthy at that time, you invite a plague. You invite a disease that would wipe out a whole village."
As she worked on the exhibit, Cat tried to imagine what it would be like if ghosts were the subject of the movies she watched. Instead of just harbingers of horror, Cat imagined the ghosts as beings with worldviews, and with superpowers instead of dark magic.
"It's like Killmonger in Black Panther—you kind of agree with some of his values, but he does it so extreme," she says. "In that way, Thai ghosts can kill, but when you see that they have a certain fate in delivering justice, it's like, I agree with that."
Despite its subject matter, Karmic I will not resemble a slaughterhouse. It will look closer to a '90s living room, full of clunky televisions and other nostalgic, domestic relics of the era. Though it explores violence, it does so in unexpected ways. Sympathy for a Brutalized Body, Cat's compilation of women ghosts attacking male ghosts, will be played next to a compilation of "slap kiss" Thai soap operas, a popular romance genre in which arguments between couples culminate in a slap and then a kiss. Constructing Horror, the video installation with livestock entrails, represents a sort of coming to terms for Cat. "I was very squirmy when I did it, because it was just like these insides," she says. "But I think that piece made me realize how I approach film and I approach art in general. I was constructing it like I was doing a painting."
Cat's relationship to the ghost in Krasue, and the memory of her grandmother awaking her for school every morning, is still somewhat uneasy. "It's scary, definitely. It's scary for children," she says. "I know her function. She's like a centurylong ghost, so yeah, she's there."
Still, Cat knows what she wants her audience to take away from Karmic I.
"We as a society create monsters. We have social anxiety that we project onto other beings and people," she says. "These ghosts exist to haunt you so you stay in line with certain things."
SEE IT: Karmic I is at Open Signal, 2766 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., opensignalpdx.org. 2-10 pm Wednesday-Friday, noon-8 pm Saturday-Sunday, March 11-May 3.