“ASIAN FUTURES, WITHOUT ASIANS”
Commissioned by The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco
Asian futures, without Asians is a new 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 over fifty 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 technically 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 presentation 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with images and clips from dozens of futuristic movies and TV shows, as Suparak delivers anecdotes, trivia, and historical documents (including photographs, ads, and cultural artifacts) from the histories of film, art, architecture, design, fashion, food, and martial arts.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, collages, essays, publications, and other creative projects.
Los Angeles premiere of Asian futures, without Asians. A conversation between Astria Suparak and writer and media creative Jason Concepcion will follow the presentation.
The Wattis Institute, San Francisco
- 2-minute excerpt in The Wattis Institute Library.
- Virtually Asian. This short video essay, commissioned by the Berkeley Art Center, is one of the 8 tropes presented in the Asian futures, without Asians presentation.
- “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
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
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.”
THE ART REPORT, “This Month’s Feature: Asian Futures, Without Asians,” March 2020
PRESS FOR “VIRTUALLY ASIAN,” A STAND-ALONE VIDEO AND ONE SECTION WITHIN “ASIAN FUTURES…”
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
SF/Arts, “Highlights: Films: Astria Suparak’s Virtually Asian,” February 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