“ASIAN FUTURES, WITHOUT ASIANS”
Asian futures, without Asians is a new multimedia presentation by artist and curator Astria Suparak, which asks: “What does it mean when so many white filmmakers envision futures inflected by Asian culture, but devoid of actual Asian people?”
Part critical analysis, part reflective essay and sprinkled throughout with humor, justified anger, and informative morsels, this one-hour illustrated lecture examines nearly 60 years of American science fiction cinema through the lens of Asian appropriation and whitewashing. Using a wide interpretation of “Asian” to reflect current and historical geopolitical trends and self-definitions (inclusive of East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Pacific Islands — the latter two of which are not Asia), this research-creation project examines how Asian cultures have been mixed and matched, contrasted against, and conflated with each other, often creating a fungible “Asianness” in futuristic sci-fi.
The quick-paced performance lecture is interspersed with images and clips from dozens of futuristic movies and TV shows, as Suparak delivers anecdotes, trivia, and historical documents (including photographs, ads, and cultural artifacts) from the histories of film, art, architecture, design, fashion, food, and martial arts. Suparak discusses the implications of not only borrowing heavily from Asian cultures, but decontextualizing and misrepresenting them, while excluding Asian contributors.
Asian futures, without Asians was commissioned by The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts as part of their Trinh T. Minh-ha season. It’s one part of Suparak’s multipart research series of the same name, which includes videos, installations, collages, essays, publications, and other projects.
PRESENTATIONS & EXHIBITIONS
The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco
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 and Theodore Lau, 12-Month Curatorial Intern, Department of Film. Part of the Modern Mondays Virtual Cinema series.
November 11, 2021, 7:30pm EST / 4:30pm PST
Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY (projected live in the Avery Theater and online)
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.
November 18, 2021, 2:30pm EST / 11:30am PST
George Mason University, Fairfax, VA (online)
Followed by a conversation between Suparak and KJ Mohr. Presented by Visiting Filmmakers Series and Women and Gender Studies, cosponsored by Film and Video Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Visual and Performing Arts, Women and Gender Studies, University Life.
Nov. 30, 2021, 6pm PST / 9pm EST
Jacob Lawrence Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle (online)
Pacific Northwest premiere of Asian futures, without Asians. Followed by a conversation between Suparak and Chandan Reddy, author, “Freedom With Violence: Race, Sexuality and the U.S. State” and Associate Professor in the departments of the Comparative History of Ideas and the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle.
UK premiere of Asian futures, without Asians. Followed by a conversation between Suparak and programmer, writer, and researcher Jemma Desai.
March 31, 2022, 5pm PST
Reed College, Portland, OR (online)
Free and open to the public.
Centre A, Vancouver, Canada (on-site and online)
Free and open to the public.
Canadian premiere of Asian futures, without Asians, commissioned by Centre A, available in two parts:
April 9 (Saturday), 2-3:30 PM PDT
The live performance lecture will be viewable online.
Week of April 25, gallery hours (April 27-30, 12–6pm)
A recording of the Canadian version of the lecture will be available for viewing on-site as part of The Living Room exhibition.
April 16, 2022 (Saturday), 6-7:30pm EST
@ The Ohio State University (online)
Asian futures, without Asians is the Keynote Address for “On Radical Practice: Representing Politics, Resistance, and Transmission” History of Art Graduate Symposium, organized by the History of Art Graduate Student Association.
Oct. 27, 2022, 6pm EST
@ The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (online)
Hanes Visiting Artist Lecture Series: Astria Suparak will present Asian futures, without Asians.
- 2-minute excerpt on Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles’s YouTube channel (Chopsticks, 2:26 minutes, poor audio).
- 2-minute excerpt in The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts’s Library (Shōji, 2:14 minutes).
- 6-minute excerpt from the Spike Island & Portland performance (Street Vendors, Lanterns).
- Virtually Asian. This short video essay, commissioned by the Berkeley Art Center, is one of the eight tropes presented in the Asian futures, without Asians presentation (3 minutes).
- 25-second excerpt from the MoMA presentation (Chopsticks in Hair, 00:25 seconds, poor audio).
- “The Urban Legend of Rat Eating,” is an early sketch of one section of the Asian futures, without Asians presentation, in the form of an Instagram album. It was included in the following exhibitions organized by Ethnocultural Art Histories Research, Concordia University, Montreal:
- Engaging Creativities, The Royal Society of Canada, online, February 2021
- (pre)existing conditions, curated by Tamara Harkness and Sarah Piché, with Alice Ming Wai Jim, Special Projects, ISEA (International Symposium on Electronic Art) 2020, online, October 13 – 19, 2020
- Hear Us Now!, curated by Diane Wong, Tamara Harkness, Chaeyeon Park, and Sarah Piché, Concordia University, online, June 29 – Sept. 2020
- Hyper(in)visibility: A Panel Discussion with Pearl C. Hsuing, Maia Ruth Lee, Astria Suparak, Christine Tien Wang, and Hồng-Ân Trương, Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas. By stephanie mei huang, edited by Alexandra Chang and Alice Ming Wai Jim. Volume 6: Issue 3 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2021), p. 259-274.
WHY ARE THEY SO AFRAID OF THE LOTUS? (edited by Kim Nguyen and Jeanne Gerrity).
A conceptual “course packet” of readings around and inspired by the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha. Driven by the central question “What are we learning from artists today?” the second volume of A Series of Open Questions is informed by themes found in the work of Trinh T. Minh-ha, such as cultural hybridization and fluidity of identity, digital and migratory aesthetics, memory and landscape, decentered realities, feminist approaches to storytelling, meditations on death and myth, post-coloniality and decolonization, and women’s work as related to cultural politics. The contributions to Why are they so afraid of the lotus? embody Trinh’s own weariness around categorization and investigate the ways production can come from and be based in positions of unknowing.
PRESS & QUOTES
“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
“[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
What I like about Asian Futures, Without Asians is that it didn’t miss: it was meticulously curated and combed over—every name, pronunciation, artifact, fabric, statue, pattern, and possible speculation. White filmmakers, you designated all this racist stuff out there in the universe—about us, about our sisters and brothers—and Suparak isn’t here to tiptoe around it for your comfort. […]
It was as if Everything Everywhere took all the things that make sci-fi films insufferable and racist for Asian people, and banished them to another universe. Asian Futures, Without Asians showed us a map of where they were embedded, awaiting their destruction. In their own way, both are defiant, which made it cathartic, brilliant.”
– May Maylisa Cat “Asian Futures, With Asians: Astria Suparak and Everything Everywhere All at Once,” May 17, 2022
KIM NGUYEN, Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts curator (post-presentation 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)
“I’m particularly happy to be introducing Astria’s work tonight, as her fascinating and influential career as a curator, writer, and artist has been one that I’ve admired for many years. Her early work as a young independent film programmer in the early 21st century was very inspirational to myself and many innumerable others at the time, particularly in the way that Astria brought together the worlds of cinephilia, fine art, and popular culture in a combination that I felt that no one else was doing.
Later her show “Alien She,” the traveling group exhibition that she curated and produced in 2013-14, which was around the global impact of Riot Grrrl, to be honest, was simply one of the best curated exhibitions I have ever gone to. Among other things, it really blew up the distinctions between popular culture, DIY culture, art, and activism in a really productive manner.
And now 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.
These are only a few of the major projects that Suparak has been behind. There are many others that can be mentioned, and I highly recommend checking out her well-documented website to learn more about the work she’s done, and the work she is going to do.”
CHANDAN REDDY, author, Freedom With Violence: Race, Sexuality and the U.S. State (post-presentation conversation at Jacob Lawrence Gallery, Nov. 2021):
“This piece for me formally lives as an insurgent intervention into the visual tableau of Hollywood curation. If Hollywood as a mass industry curates the images that we receive as our visual unconscious, you’ve offered us this kind of counter-, curative practice that’s also kind of a cure for Asian Americans — to be able to actually see the repertoire of erasure, through representation. That is the essence of Hollywood cinema in relationship to Asians. I really appreciate that blending, or that blurring, of curation and aesthetic intervention. […]
Your project reveals the function of American cinematic Orientalism in justifying U.S. wars in Asia, in justifying the only use of a nuclear bomb in the history of humankind, in justifying the long history of exploiting Asian immigrant labor without enfranchising Asian cultural subjects, that you talked about in relationship to the Asiatic Barred Zone and early migration. […]
It’s so important that we see the work that you’re doing right now, and particularly the way you contextualize it in relationship to COVID, also in relationship to the Atlanta shooting. Because I think that this is the kind of work that reveals how quickly “Asian” goes from reviled limit of the human to erotic object of desire whose potency as an object of desire is the cause of violence against it.
What I disliked about some of the language around “anti-Asian hate” in the Atlanta shooting is it actually didn’t acknowledge that it wasn’t hate. It was a kind of gruesome fetishistic desire that drove it. And your work is really showing that these two things can be — as contradictory as they are, to be like, you are the animalistic limit of the human and you are the apex of erotic desire — they seem to actually situate themselves simultaneously in American consciousness. […]
Your piece shows that anti-Asian racism, or American Orientalism — maybe that’s a better way of putting it because it’s not always anti-Asian, it’s liking Asians too much — and the violence that it covers over has oftentimes really been not about extinguishing Asia or Asians in the way that, for example, the American pastoral was about getting rid of Native Americans — extinguishing them, excising them. But it’s really about turning everything that is Asia into a bounded object that can be consumed in some way. And that was so powerful in your work and I’m just so moved by that observation. [..] And you show how long this kind of trope is in the cinematic apparatus.
I want to appreciate how important this work is in this moment. In addition to the sense of the violence that’s happening against Asians and Asian immigrants in the U.S., as well as the ongoing counterinsurgency of U.S. empire, we’re all being interacted and mediated by screens now because of COVID. […] I feel like your work is really this attempt to have us think a little bit about what it means to have intimacy through the screen, and the kind of histories of the screen that precede us and will probably organize us before we have a chance to organize ourselves. As much as I’ve always felt a kind of weirdness about the screen as an intimacy, I feel like something in your work is helping me get a sense, too, that there’s a danger with the screen as an intimate medium, if you will, or as an intimate opportunity. So that “Shoji Screen” section [in your presentation] was very Interesting to me in that way.”
DAWN CHAN, editor and New York Times and Artforum critic (post-presentation conversation at Bard, Nov. 2021)
“Thank you to Astria for such a terrific, thoughtful presentation — so wide-ranging and clearly a labor of love, and just such a sharp and urgent critique. […] When I was writing about Asian futures in Artforum, I was trying to draw a sort of parallel between the projection of Asian people into futuristic settings by American media, on the one hand, and the sort of erasure of diasporic Asians from the present-day American cultural landscape. And it’s really nice to see Astria making the sort of next level, more nuanced point that it’s often not even the case that Asian people do appear in these futuristic settings, but in fact it’s often Asian culture kind of remixed and essentialized, reduced into kind of incoherent mishmash.”
THE DOUBLE NEGATIVE, “Culture Diary” (Asian futures, without Asians selected as the Tuesday pick for what to do in the U.K.), February 14, 2022
“’What does it mean when so many white filmmakers envision futures inflected by Asian culture, but devoid of actual Asian people?’ This is the question/departure point for Spike Island’s UK premiere of artist and curator Astria Suparak’s lecture, which grapples with what they describe as ‘a fungible “Asianness” in futuristic sci-fi’. An historical problem stretching back to the dawn of Hollywood, it persists in the Star Wars and Marvel franchises (see 2016′s Doctor Strange, above), and in Western adaptations of anime classics such as 2017′s Ghost in the Shell, to name a few. “
IMAGINARY WORLDS PODCAST
“Part of what makes up a genre, like science fiction or fantasy, is that certain tropes are repeated. And as a fan, it’s fun to recognize tropes when they come up and appreciate how they’ve been adapted. But I recently learned about a genre within a genre that’s been hiding in plain sight – or at least it was for me.
I was invited to watch a presentation called Asian futures, without Asians by the artist Astria Suparak. Her talk looks at how science fiction often depicts a future full of Asian iconography that’s mixed-up and taken out of context. But there aren’t many Asian people in these futures. And this is a talk she’s given in person and virtually. And her presentation has been paired with exhibits at museums and galleries.
I expected her to cover obviously offensive things like Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s and Ming the Merciless. And that’s there, but she wanted to concentrate on more recent history. It was an eye-opener for me because I had seen most of the movies and shows she referenced, but I was suddenly seeing them in a whole new light. Apparently, a lot of people feel that way after seeing her presentation.”
– Eric Molinsky, Episode 193: “Asian Futures Without Asians,” March 3, 2022
THE ART REPORT, “This Month’s Feature: Asian Futures, Without Asians,” March 2020
SELECTED PRESS FOR “VIRTUALLY ASIAN” (a stand-alone video and one section within “Asian futures, without Asians”)
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
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