“ASIAN FUTURES, WITHOUT ASIANS” series
“If the war is the continuation of politics by other means, then media images are the continuation of war by other means. Immersed in the machinery, part of the special effect, no critical distance.”
– Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989) by Trinh T. Minh-ha
A samurai sword on the wall of an evil mastermind’s office. A home decorated with Buddha statues. A blonde woman in a cheongsam. A speculative cityscape punctuated with prominent signage in Arabic. What does it mean when so many white filmmakers envision futures inflected by Asian culture, but devoid of actual Asian people?
Asian futures, without Asians is a visual analysis of over half a century of American science fiction cinema. A multipart research project, it draws from the histories of art, architecture, design, fashion, film, food, and weaponry.
Asian futures… will be unveiled throughout 2021 and 2022 in various forms, including videos, collages, illustrated presentations, gallery installations, digital projects, and visual essays, presented by contemporary art institutions, a science-fiction festival, art and film journals, universities, and other organizations.
PROJECTS & SCHEDULE
“Collection Playlist: Virtually Asian & Beirut Outtakes“: Peggy Ahwesh and Astria Suparak offer inventive perspectives of Western influences on Asian cinema and Asian influences on Western cinema.
ILLUSTRATED PRESENTATION: Asian futures, without Asians
Register for the Zoom link. Free and open to the public. Live captioning and ASL interpretation.
Los Angeles premiere of Asian futures, without Asians. A conversation between Astria Suparak and writer and media creative Jason Concepcion will follow the presentation.
New York premiere of Asian futures, without Asians. Suparak is joined in conversation by art historian and curator Xin Wang, as well as Theodore Lau, 12-Month Curatorial Intern, Department of Film. Part of the Modern Mondays Virtual Cinema series.
Followed by a conversation between Suparak and critic and editor Dawn Chan. Produced by Bard Film & Electronic Arts in collaboration with the Center for Curatorial Studies, Asian Studies, and Experimental Humanities at Bard.
Pacific Northwest premiere of Asian futures, without Asians. Followed by a conversation between Suparak and Chandan Reddy, Associate Professor in the departments of the Comparative History of Ideas and the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.
COLLAGE: Helmet to Helmet
VISUAL ESSAY: Asian futures, without Asians
VIDEO (LOOPING DIGITAL PROJECT): Tropicollage
A new looping video commissioned by science-fiction festival Other Futures, released online.
February 22, 2022, 7pm PST (date change from Feb. 3 due to Omicron) @ Northwest Film Forum, Seattle
Launch event for the new issue of MONDAY Art Journal (published by Jacob Lawrence Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle), featuring a visual essay version of Tropicollage.
For the latest updates, follow on social media.
PRESS & QUOTES
NEW YORK TIMES
“One of the key strategies for today’s artist-activists is creating visibility: calling attention to the often unseen and unnoted presence of Asian-American communities in cities and in the culture — to their labor and contributions, and to the violence aimed at them.
Countering invisibility is at the heart of a short film by Astria Suparak titled ‘Virtually Asian.’ It splices together scenes from science fiction movies in which urban landscapes are filled with stereotypical ‘Asian’ signifiers, but the actual characters are almost exclusively white. She worked on it during the coronavirus lockdown.
‘The piece is part of a larger project examining 40 years of sci-fi films,’ Suparak said, ‘and how white filmmakers envision a future that is inflected by Asian culture but devoid of actual Asian people.’
The project emerged, Suparak said, ‘out of an ongoing erasure and racism and violence, and how both in real life and in mainstream media our varied and unique cultures are carelessly misidentified and jumbled together.'”
– Aruna D’Souza, “Pushing Against Hate: Asian-American artists are spurred to activism,” April 18, 2021
“[Frank] Herbert’s original text [Dune], inspired partly by T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, derives its motifs from Islamic culture to construct the fictional Fremen and their beliefs, and the film offers lots of well-composed images of unabashed Orientalism to make sure these parallels stick: light streaming through geometric grilles, fortresses rising like ziggurats, long lines of dusty, robe-swathed masses, fragments of swirling calligraphic script. Many of these were already cited as common elements of contemporary science-fiction films in Astria Suparak’s illustrated lecture “Asian Futures Without Asians,” which she’s been presenting since early 2021. Suparak demonstrates, through copious examples, how persistently—and incoherently—Western science-fiction films borrow from superficial aspects of Asian culture, via costuming, architecture, and set design, in order to impart what is imagined to be a sense of the exotic and futuristic.
It’s hard not to think about her thesis while watching Dune. Even if its Islamic borrowings might be expected owing to the source material, all kinds of unrelated Asian cultural artifacts are randomly strewn about this Duniverse—bindis, chimes, mandalas, parasols, silken robes, even Mongolian throat singing—intermingled with a cold European medievalism to round out its project of conveying the fantastical through a bewildering collage of familiar tropes. At times these cultural mash-ups are deliriously wacky: there’s a powerfully somber sort of camp at play when Villeneuve throws in a martial bagpiper to lead a procession of the House of Atreides, men in macho metal armor and women delicately jeweled and veiled, as they debark upon their arid satrapy.”
– Ed Halter, “Dune,” October 22, 2021
“Once it’s pointed out, it’s hard to unsee: Asian futures without Asian people. In 2019, Oakland curator and artist Astria Suparak started cataloguing the trope (a form of techno-orientalism) in science fiction films made by white directors. […]
The talk ‘Asian Futures, Without Asians’ is Suparak’s critical distance. Examining the imagery in movies like Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element,’ with examples that stretch from the 1970s to present-day sci-fi, she asks the audience a crucial question: What does it mean to absorb visions of the future that decontextualize Asian culture from its very people?“
– Sarah Hotchkiss, “Sci-Fi is Full of ‘Asian Futures, Without Asians’,” THE DO LIST, March 2020
Suparak’s piece is immediate and her voice, narrating the words, is melodic and compelling. The over-dubbing of her acerbic observations on blockbuster films is a compelling prelude to other iterations of her work that will appear in fragments across digital platforms. […]
Racist histories feed right into an inability to imagine less racist futures. It is here that Suparak’s work intervenes, insisting on creative depictions of a future in which white American myths no longer dominate the collective imaginary. […]
Virtually Asian is just one shard of a larger research project that examines over 40 years of American science fiction cinema and television from a critical lens. The presentations of her results are diffuse: the video at Berkeley Art Center, a forthcoming ontological essay on the conical hat, troughs of materials culled from fan sites and military wikis, illustrated essays, screenshots from Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell and a possible series of GIFs. […]
The less utilitarian approach to composing digital worlds, modeled by the Berkeley Art Center’s hands-off curation and suggested by the arguments in Suparak’s work, feels like a possible escape from the algorithms. Instead of a high-tech future designed to tell white American stories, instead of a pressing cohesion that insists on one national mythology, The Option To… and Virtually Asian make an argument for complex, non-rigid and diverse sequences of media that cohabitate in the present moment.
– Theadora Walsh, “Astria Suparak’s ‘Virtually Asian’ Analyzes Sci-Fi to Argue for Less Racist Futures,” March 2, 2021
THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Asian Futures, Without Asians illuminates the lopsided nature of one Hollywood genre and critiques the way media is concepted to guide audience empathy. Suparak’s [installation] investigates how artificial intelligence is coded in film, and the ways in which sympathetic robots and cyborgs, who are often white, are designed as “who the audience is supposed to root for,” Suparak says, adding: “The way they’re presented is in stark contrast to how Asian robots are often dehumanized.”
Encoding Futures — which examines how artificial intelligence molds society, and how algorithms have the power to define the world to come — was co-organized by Oxy Arts with Mashinka Firunts Hakopian, Mellon professor of the practice at Occidental, and Meldia Yesayan, director of Oxy Arts. It takes a multidisciplinary approach to looking at representation, both in terms of how the future is presented and who gets to exist there.
Says Hakopian of selecting Suparak’s work for the show, “Part of the reason why it was so crucial to include this work is because it is a really remarkable media archaeology that’s looking at how Hollywood cinema has shaped popular imaginaries of AI. And so, Hollywood has played an outsized role in determining what AI looks like, sounds like, feels like within the popular imaginary. And I think Astria’s piece does an incredible job of bringing that to the fore.”
– “How Sci-Fi Films Use Asian Characters to Telegraph the Future While Also Dehumanizing Them,” Evan Nicole Brown, November 16, 2021
KIM NGUYEN, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts curator (Q&A, June 2021)
“Your project really underlines all the ways that power is exercised through representations and through the media. […] You tracking that kind of history over the last 40 years proves how those reproductions [of the same colonial violence] just keep happening.
[…] It ends up being our reduction and erasure, which is in service of expanding the white imaginary, which I think you very eloquently presented in this talk. We, and I use this as an invitational we, are so often being used to uphold the same violent racial hierarchies and I think the very expansiveness of your project really proves that. We don’t arrive at these associations alone, right? They’re reproduced, they’re in the media, they’re in all of these things that are around us that we’re constantly consuming actively and passively. And an Asian future, without Asians is this really economic rendering, like […] you don’t need us there to show that white supremacy exists and that they desire us not to exist at all.”
ED HALTER, critic and a founding director of Light Industry (introduction at Bard, Nov. 2021)
“with this lecture and its related projects Astria is bringing that same energy into a new form of media analysis that is in itself a new form of cross-platform production.”
ForYourArt, “Top Pick of the Day,” Sept. 16, 2021
Hyperallergic, “Your Concise Los Angeles Art Guide for October 2021,” Matt Stromberg and Elisa Wouk Almino, October 2021
THE ART REPORT, “This Month’s Feature: Asian Futures, Without Asians,” March 2020
SF/Arts, “Highlights: Films: Astria Suparak’s Virtually Asian,” February 2021
7×7, “28 Fun Things to Do This Week,” Chloe Saraceni, Jun 04, 2021
NOB HILL GAZETTE, “What To Do This Week,” Michelle Konstantinovsky, June 8, 2021
Press on Virtually Asian here.