Sukjong Hong & Kameelah Rasheed
November 29, 2013
Each year, our artist development program, Create Change, supports 15 to 20 artists developing their socially engaged creative practice through our Fellowship, Residency, and Commissions program. In 2012, we began asking our Create Change artists to pair up for Creative Conversations: open-ended creative exchanges to be published on our blog. Read on to meet our Create Change alumni.
Sukjong Hong & Kameelah Rasheed
Over the course of several weeks, we exchanged email fragments, excerpts and other process notes. We talked about a time-traveling Harriet Tubman, redaction, productive haunting, chopping and screwing time, the archive as a site of power, and the possibilities of science fiction for marginalized communities.
I’ve been exploring science fiction and Afrofuturism as a way to reconcile some of my work around archiving, impossible futures/maps to imagined places, staged photographs, and site-specific installations. Mark Dery is always a go-to text. He writes,
“Hack this: Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other—-the stranger in a strange land—-would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists? Yet, to this writer’s knowledge, only Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, and Charles Saunders have chosen to write within the genre conventions of SF. This is especially perplexing in light of the fact that African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology, be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or tasers, is too often brought to bear on black bodies.”
–Mark Dery, Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose (from “Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture”, 1994)
I’m reminded of when I first read Octavia Butler’s Kindred. It was a revelation, after reading sci-fi predominantly featuring cyber-punk white heroes and heroines. It was also perplexing to me that I hadn’t read more African-American sci-fi until that point, or the kind of science fiction that Butler was writing – that grappled with the history of violence, whether in the experience of African-Americans or other groups. Instead, there was so much science fiction where race was conveniently erased. Butler seems to face that ‘sci-fi nightmare’ of black experience unflinchingly.
I didn’t seriously engage with science fiction until I was 16. The science fiction I read before Octavia Butler rendered me invisible. And this wasn’t some post-racial theoretical environment, imaginary geography, or temporal proposal where there was no racial oppression. No, the message was, “in the future you and your people do not exist” or maybe the message was “even in the future, we don’t know what to do with you — you’re still a problem to solve”, or maybe Derrick Bell had it right in “Space Traders” where in the future, an economically impoverished America votes to trade the black people for gold to for America to pay its debts. We disappear. Bell has a scene where on the last Martin Luther King Day in America, blacks are marched onto the ships of the aliens in chains, half-naked.
In the future, there are no black people.
On March 8th, 2013 during a taping of the Dutch television show College Tour, Whoopi Goldberg spoke about black representation in science fiction saying, “without Star Trek, people would still think there were no black people in the future”. The crowd giggled. She continued, “from the inception of film and television until 1963, in any sci-fi movie, there were no black people. That always bothered me. Lieutenant Uhura was the first black woman in space and she was beautiful.”
//Left: Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan, Right: Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Nyota Uhura
Kindred was the first piece of science fiction I read. Back in 2002, I heard her speak at my college because Kindred was our summer reading. I did not know how important she was to my trajectory until years after her passing. Listen to her speak on Charlie Rose here where she says she loves writing because “you get to write your own worlds. You got to write yourself in them.” I’ve read Kindred dozen times since. I lost my original copy which was covered in annotations and post-it notes. I recently happened upon her finding aid papers on San Marino Huntington Digital Library site. It’s a treasure trove and I am grateful that someone built this archive. I want to share more of Dery around fragments and archives:
“The notion of Afrofuturism gives rise to a troubling antinomy: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures? Furthermore, don’t the technocrats, SF writers, futurologists, set designers, and streamliners—white to a man—who have engineered our collective fantasies already have a lock on that unreal estate?”
Mark Dery, Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose (from Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, 1994)
No Instructions for Assembly (at Real Art Ways), Kameelah Janan Rasheed
No Instructions for Assembly (at Real Art Ways), Kameelah Janan Rasheed
Dery pulls me in with his discussion of residue and fragments. Before rereading this quote, I did not explicitly think about my work within the framework of futurity and science fiction, but what I am doing is creating new worlds from the legible traces. This year, I had my first solo exhibition, “No Instructions for Assembly,” which was a research-based photo installation where I drew on my family’s displacement and homelessness to carefully arrange found as well as original photographs, objects, and texts into layered constellations to articulate new futures and clarify lost narratives. I now think about myself as an alchemist with archival impulses, experimenting with transmuting residue, margins, footnotes, and other traces into fleshy narratives that challenge the illusion of coherent narrative systems and encourage elastic futures.
Dery also mentions something else worth exploring: those who have “engineered our collective fantasies” and those who “have a lock on that unreal estate”. The assertion that even our imaginations have been colonized and gentrified is worth considering. The assertion is meant by the hope that science fiction can allow us to reclaim—that other art forms allow us to take hold of our imaginations.
I wish I could go and see your exhibit. Yes, alchemy is a great word for what seems to be happening. What I sense from the exhibit photos is that these fragments and traces are dialoguing with each other. They are not presented as lost artifacts or ruins, abstracted and beautiful by themselves, and you are not interested in heroically creating a singular narrative. I think that invitation of multiple and simultaneous tales emerging from the residue of what remains, what can be carried, is a challenge to authoritative history-making.
Dery’s question is especially haunting:
“Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of its history, imagine possible futures?”
This reminds me of Kindred again, because the narrator is pulled through the walls of her apartment into the past. And it isn’t pretty, it isn’t done gently. It seems she’s forced to face her own archive, and to take a role in what happens. Otherwise she wouldn’t survive.
What I find interesting is how Butler challenges the notion of time travel as a utopic escape. Instead, time travel is an opportunity to confront a not-so-distant past—when just a hundred years prior means that the narrator, as a black woman in America, is automatically perceived to be a slave or servant, and therefore constantly under threat of incredible violence. With these moves, Butler’s imagination cuts away at the thin façade of our present—and it makes me wonder: what other histories could be gestured at via sci-fi that we have not yet faced?
Along with the relative absence of African-Americans in sci-fi, there is a parallel erasure in mainstream sci-fi that I want to note: Asia (whatever that term means) as the primary site of post-apocalyptic dystopia. For example, in the film Cloud Atlas, seeing Papa Song’s restaurant where Asian female clones serve customers their own reconstituted bodies, or the scene of those same female clones hung upside down and jerked like animals up a conveyor belt, I had to ask, whose future fantasy is this? It’s as if, in this future vision, Asian female bodies are doomed to not only be cheap labor but also decorative machines. They’re not even human beings—and somehow this has become a norm in science fiction. All this anxiety over technological change, over human bodies become more machine-like, about who will emerge as the world’s superpower, seems to consistently express itself in a dystopic Asian context. Asian = inhumanly good, docile worker. Not unlike the present mythology.
//Still from Cloud Atlas (2012)
What does it mean when certain geographic spaces are mapped as sites of post-apocalyptic dystopia? How do we reconcile dystopias where certain bodies are ornamental, utilitarian, and passive? I am interested in the erasure in science fiction and the redemptive power of marginalized communities who engage with afro-futuristic possibilities.
I love what you write about how Kindred challenges the notion of time travel as a utopic escape. Time travel becomes utopic for those who travel to a future or a past where they continue to wield power. Time travel to an imagined promised land/promised space/promised temporality seems torturous to those who don’t weld power. If moving forward in time yields no substantive shift in quality of life and possibilities, then what? Who controls these time travel narratives? Who is the conductor for this time travel journey? What are the pit stops? Where can we hop off? Can we take an underground railroad route?
Is there a time traveling Harriet Tubman who can lead us to a future space where we are neither ornamental or utilitarian? I am not talking about traversing physical space, but temporal space. Harriet Tubman shuttling tired bodies through portals to someplace where tired bodies become human again. My heart is on Harriet Tubman as a time traveling, portal defying badass who saw freedom not as a shift in geography or location, but a shift in temporality. One day I will write this story.
I was thinking about endangered possibilities and how Afrofuturism is a radical act in of writing these possibilities out of extinction. In 2004, Black folks got together at the Black to the Future conference in Seattle to have the first-ever black speculative fiction con. Michael Davis led a discussion entitled “Why Black Superheroes Can’t Fly” which talked about the limitations put on black characters including those with superhuman powers. Afro-futurism becomes a space to interrogate not only the limitations placed on marginalized bodies by society at large, but the limitations we internalize as well. This reminded me of Walter Mosely’s 1999 “Black to the Future” article in the NY Times where he writes,
“Science fiction promises a future full of possibility, alternative lives, and even regret. A black child picks up a copy of Spider-Man and imagines himself swinging into a world beyond the limitations imposed by Harlem or Congress.” Walter Mosley, Black to the Future (New York Times, 1999)
Science fiction plants possibility and re-orients us to embrace a truly radical imagination where we resist the policing of dreaming and re-engineering of our world. Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination taught me so much about the power of imagination in transforming society.
Your reimagining of figures like Harriet Tubman making temporal rather than spatial journeys is so compelling. I can imagine history class being so different if that was the question posed to students: to what time, to what year, should Tubman lead those who want to be free? Would it be the present moment? If not, when?
And I think the question you pose is the question that I can never answer. My inability to answer that question eats away at me. Would Tubman even have a place in the present to lead them? Is this time a temporal illusion? Is the future even better? Would she have to create a location in the future so that these freed folks would have somewhere to rest? And are maroon colonies even more relevant in 2013 as they were in the 1800′s? Would Tubman have to chop and screw time?
Chopping and screwing is associated with the late DJ Screw from Texas. From my understanding, chopping and screwing includes slowing the tempo down, skipping beats, record scratching, stop-time, etc. In DJ Screw’s technique, he’d play the same record on both turntables with a delay between the records while manipulating the crossfader. What’s fascinating with all of this is the way that these methods manipulate linearity, layer pacing, skipping and stopping time, and pattern interruption.
This chop and screw paradigm and it’s jazz-based predecessor makes sense in the context of how black artists conceptualize time and space.
Speaking of chopping and screwing time, history, linearity, check out DJ Spooky that subliminal kid, “Rebirth of a Nation” (remix of D.W. Griffith’s 1912, “Birth of a Nation”)
This remix is mesmerizing. I took several screenshots of the remix—one was of the disintegrating clansmen, breaking up into polygons like an old video game, and another is when the screen is spliced in the middle, making new and strange bodies out of the original. When I look at it now, this image seems like a metaphor for how systems of control, like racial hierarchies or white supremacy, often operate, like headless bodies. This way we can’t pinpoint a single person, a single actor to hold responsible. But the ideology still has control over our lives, or to take a phrase from a Theatre of the Oppressed training I had recently, it’s the cop in our heads. We regulate and discipline ourselves.
Your process of investigating emancipatory, future-oriented thinking also reminded me of this Second Life battle that took place recently. A far-right French political party, known for its xenophobic, anti-immigrant stance, the Front National, established a headquarters in Second Life. But then protesters showed up, as if to say—no, this virtual world has no room for your ideologies, for your all-too-real reality. Somehow, the initially peaceful march of protesters devolved into total war, complete with flying pigs. After a lot of chaos, the headquarters began to disintegrate, pixelate into fragments, and then was replaced by a casino. Then, in an unexpected juxtaposition, over the same field where the far-right headquarters is cut down, Martin Luther King’s face shines out of the sun. All these time-spaces collapsed into one space, where American civil rights leaders shine on French citizenship battle sites.
How is this improbable plot possible? Does virtual reality offer freedom to people without power in the present?
Virtual reality may offer a space of freedom, but the internet is yet another site of oppressive and marginalizing behavior. And the power to do so without having to face someone in person, I believe, adds a layer of anonymity that makes the violent remarks and exclusionary behavior seen in online communities and games like Second Life feel even more alienating. The internet is yet another frontier for anti-racist work and not a post-racial topography.
Often when I think about the internet and systems of powers, I reflect on how the HTTP, computer, and programming errors that pop up on our screen are often strong parallels to the ways systems of oppression interact with us in everyday life. Simple errors like “Access Denied” or “Insufficient Privileges” have an uncanny parallel to the implicit working of hegemonic systems. With this parallel to computer systems and programming errors, I am meditating on systems of oppression as heavily encoded systems with both implicit and explicit rules that are always in flux, almost like shapeshifters. We can’t read their codes. They choose not to read our code—selective literacy. These systems are hard to pin down because of course these systems are abstractions of dense social relations, but it is also this feeling of, as soon as we think we’ve learned all the rules, a new operating system is introduced.
As part of my Reference Materials, Worksheets & Systems for the Present and Future Perfect series, I created a piece called, An Index and Series of Iterative Footnotes on Computer and HTTP Error(s) (?) that Apply to The Condition as Black (Bodies) People in America on the Occasion of our (Premature) Post-Post-Post Racial America Celebration on the Eve of the Election of Our Presumed Savior Barack Hussein Obama. The index is referenced from (No) Errors in Programming/System Errors in These Times, a fictional text and compiled in response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article on July 15, 2013 following the exoneration of George Zimmerman where Coates writes, “The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman is not an error in programming […]Trayvon Martin is not a miscarriage of American justice, but American justice itself. This is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended.”
There’s so much in this piece to pore over. Code 449 “Retry with (less outrage)” is among the ones that make me both laugh and feel sorrowful. Code 419 “(Blackness) Authentication Timeout” is also striking. Who gets to define blackness? and why? Somewhere between tokenism and visible exploitation, we subject ourselves to a myriad of codes to avoid being seen as angry, or inauthentic, to keep our operating systems going, to not have a total shut down.
From your earlier note, I have to ask: what endangered possibilities emerge from the archiving work and mapmaking/photography you do? What limitations, internalized or not, do you envision your art challenging?
The reason why I like science fiction and speculative fiction is because boundaries, cities, futures, ideas, possibilities, etc. are all elastic. The endangered possibilities I am talking about is the intentional capture, containment, and neutralization of the imaginations of marginalized communities.
So I’ve been looking at redacted documents in American history in a process of exploring erasure and silence in official state narratives. The one on the left is a redacted CIA memo on waterboarding, released to the ACLU via a Freedom of Information Act request—and the one on the right is a work-in-progress in a series I am calling “Beautiful Redactions,” where I explore the simple gestures and didactic exercises through which so many experiences have been covered up.
Information regimes, monopolized systems of knowledge, captive narratives. Foucault always talked about power as it relates to knowledge systems, control over “truth,” who owns the spaces where our information is stored, and the process by which information is disseminated. The act of redacting and censoring creates a visual stimulus—a mystery. What is hidden by the black bars? Who hid this information? What metric was used to determine which information was viewable? Who is preserving narratives outside of state-controlled institutions? How do we gain access to meaningful information in an age where there is an assumption of information surplus? Is the information surplus narrative a distraction from the possible reality that the information strategically provided to us hinders an intimate engagement with the narratives that help us get closer to understanding the core machinery of our nation? What is to be said of nations of information ministers? Do nations without an official information minister role still have bodies and auxiliary units that function in the same ways?
Information politics draws me in to speak about librarians, archivists, and other information scientists as activists. I had a conversation about going into library sciences. I was introduced to a Black librarian and activist named E.J. Josey. He became the president of the American Library Association in 1984–85. At his inaugural address, he said, “The information industry has the technology to control information, but its price tag on information distribution and its profit goal create a bias in what information is made available and how it is dispensed. Only the nonprofit organization, the library, dedicated to a total community service goal with trained experts, librarians, running the operation can provide the full scope of information for the total population in a fair and objective manner.” With the closing and underfunding of countless libraries, it threatens an already closed off information industry.
Librarians and archivists are part of a larger constellation of information activists.
Totally. I think these questions of information politics inform both of our processes. For a long time, I thought the underlying aim of artists working with marginalized communities was to offer “counter-narratives” to the dominant one. It’s been interesting to collect oral histories of elders in my community and grapple, for the first time, with creating a public archive. Actually, meeting you and other archivists through The Laundromat Project has really opened my eyes to how democratizing the archive is such a political and even insurgent act. Librarians are today’s public space / public memory warriors.
An archive, rather than offer a single counter-narrative, offers the creation of many diverse narratives. And maybe that’s how dominant myths of history can actually be challenged—many voices, experiences, records, pieces of evidence.
I want to share an excerpt from a work that has inspired me for a long time—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. She is a seminal Korean-American artist whose life was violently cut short—and this passage in her work relates to Dery’s question—here we are, consumed in the search for traces of our history, trying to move forward together. It also points to a dynamic that I hear in the oral histories I am collecting.
“Our destination is fixed on the perpetual motion of search. Fixed in its perpetual exile. Here at my return in eighteen years, the war is not ended. We fight the same war. We are inside the same struggle seeking the same destination. We are severed in Two by an abstract enemy an invisible enemy under the title of liberators who have conveniently named the severance, Civil War. Cold War. Stalemate.
I am in the same crowd, the same coup, the same revolt, nothing has changed. I am inside the demonstration I am locked inside the crowd and carried in its movement. The voices ring shout one voice then many voices they are waves they echo I am moving in the direction the only direction with the voices the only direction.”
—Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, Dictee.
I immediately imagined maps. Maps to non-existent places. Maps that do not route us on a particular destination. Aimless spirits until they are set on a path because they hear the ring of community.
I think for myself and the artists I work with in our Asian-American oral history collective, this sense of “the many voices…the only direction” is how we feel. The destination hasn’t yet been mapped, it’s true. It is still being made, created. We are haunted by what has happened, but especially, by what we know has happened and is happening, but is never told, always hidden.
//Sukjong Hong, Illustration
So I want to bring up a passage from a work I keep returning to—Avery Gordon’s “Haunting & The Sociological Imagination.” She wrote an essay after she published the book, reflecting on its main theme:
“Haunting always registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or being done in the present and is for this reason quite frightening. But haunting, unlike trauma by contrast, is distinctive for producing a something-to-be-done. Indeed, it seemed to me that haunting was precisely the domain of turmoil and trouble, that moment (of however long duration) when things are not in their assigned places, when the cracks and the rigging are exposed, when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings won’t go away, when easily living one day and then the next becomes impossible, when the present seamlessly becoming “the future‟ gets entirely jammed up. Haunting refers to this socio-political-psychological state when something else, or something different from before, feels like it must be done, and prompts a something-to-be-done.”
Tell me more.
What are you haunted by?
What haunts our community?
How do we externalize these haunts?
When I read, “when the people who are meant to be invisible show up without any sign of leaving, when disturbed feelings won’t go away…”, I wondered if haunting is a form of protest. To haunt those who oppress. To refuse to be invisible. To create an insistent visibility, presence, resistance.
Yes, I think there is such a thing as a productive haunting. Maybe it isn’t a form of protest, maybe it isn’t as clear-cut as that—but maybe haunting activates protest among the living—offering a way to face and name trauma and suppressed history such that it is restorative and not just painful. It’s definitely been interesting to think that all this unnameable dread and silence in our histories can actually percolate and mutate into things we can grapple with, name, and face head on.
So to try to answer your question, I’m haunted by—where do I begin? I’m haunted—I imagine many of us are haunted—by the shadow acts of the militarized nation we live in. I’m haunted by the fact that many 2nd-generation Korean-Americans, my generation, have no memory or history beyond the year of their birth, or past their parents’ immigration to the United States. Our parents refuse to name or retell the reality of the military dictatorships they survived, the wars they lived through or participated in, the complex transactions that happened via colonialism in our history. I have a name for us—we are the beautiful amnesiacs. We are the always-future-babies. I am haunted by a Korean woman who was a US GI military bride, who sometimes wanders the streets of Manhattan’s Koreatown and approaches strangers for help, but her requests are indecipherable, and strangers often turn away. I’m haunted by what I’ve seen in Vietnam, in the Philippines, in Japan—places where I’ve met with people who are affected by US military bases, military pollution, their own militaries and corporations. On the flip side, US veterans often share their stories with me, of their tours of duty abroad, as if I would understand, as if I can offer absolution, as if I’m Okinawan, Filipina, Vietnamese, everyone in between. I’m full of stories shared in passing, stories that are only hinted at, stories that shake everything I’ve ever learned in school. And I’d like to believe that there’s a reason—a force—a something in the world—that wants these stories told.
//Sukjong Hong, Illustration (Ink pots and a drawing of Mr. Lee, a Flushing resident) from her Open City article A Fledgling Assemblage: Gathering fragments of a changing neighborhood
ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Sukjong Hong is an artist and writer whose visual art and community organizing work engages with war and displacement. She is currently organizing a oral history collective of artists and organizers who seek to share the experiences of Asian-Pacific American immigrant communities that are often hidden from the mainstream narrative. Most recently, she was an Open City Fellow at the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop, writing creative non-fiction about New York’s immigrant communities. She was also a participating artist in Still Present Pasts, a multi-media exhibit based on oral histories of the Korean War. She has organized artists and musicians in the United States to support international labor rights and peace campaigns. Her training is in architecture and urban planning.
Kameelah Janan Rasheed is a research-based photo conceptual artist experimenting with site-specific installation, printmaking, collage, and text. Her art practices explore archives and memory, haunting, science fiction, systems of knowledge and fragments/traces of marginal histories. Central to her practice is the collecting and repurposing of found images, objects, texts, and sounds. She considers herself an alchemist with archival impulses, experimenting with transmuting residue, margins, footnotes, and other traces into fleshy narratives that allow for a futurist imagining. Her first solo show, No Instructions for Assembly debuted in 2013 at Real Art Ways and she has participated in residences such as The Center for Book Arts (2013), The VAN Exhibition Residency (2013), and The Center for Photography at Woodstock (2012). After ten years working in traditional schools as both a high school teacher and program manager, Kameelah now works as a Gallery/Studio instructor at the Brooklyn Museum as well as a program officer for instruction and teacher coach at a NYC-based partner school organization. She is also a Senior Editor of Art and Interviews at Specter Magazine where she has interviewed writers such as Kiese Laymon, Victor LaValle, Nnedi Okorafor, Wendy C. Ortiz, etc. The former Amy Biehl U.S. Fulbright Scholar to South Africa (2006) earned her BA in Public Policy and Africana Studies at Pomona College and her Ed.M in Secondary Education at Stanford University (2008).