Over 90 students, community members and faculty gathered at the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Helmut Stern Auditorium Wednesday night to view artist Astria Suparak’s “Asian futures, without Asians,” a multimedia performance on the racist usage of Asian culture within Western science fiction.
The viewing is the first of multiple events in the Digital Studies Institute’s Search Engines series hosted by DISCO Network, a Mellon-funded coalition of research laboratories at various universities. Jeff Nagy, U-M faculty lead for Search Engines, said the series aims to provide education on technology through a social justice-driven lens.
“(Search Engines is) a series that is meant to see what art can offer as a critical lens on technology, on creating equitable societies,” Nagy said. “This series is meant to … reach people that we’re not going to reach with our research necessarily, and to do it in a way that’s maybe more approachable, more creative.”
Suparak, an Oakland-based Thai curator and artist, first developed “Asian futures, without Asians” as a written piece for the Wattis Institute’s research on Vietnamese filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha. Since then, Suparak has developed the project, which includes the multimedia presentation, “Asian futures, without Asians,” into a collection of visual essays, murals, art installations and interdisciplinary lectures, like the one performed at the UMMA Wednesday.
During her performance, Suparak used sound effects, hand motions, movie clips and numerous screen captures of science fiction media to highlight key examples of Asian culture being manipulated to fit a white protagonist’s story. Suparak drew from a variety of historical events and science fiction media, including political cartoons from the 1880s and the four-decade-old “Blade Runner.”
During a conversation with associate English professor Tung-Hui Hu following the performance, Suparak described the cultural disparities present in science fiction media that her presentation outlined.
“The Asian people, in this … very futuristic setting, aren’t able to be the intellectual or the moral leaders of that story,” Suparak said. “There’s a term for this: it’s called techno-orientalism.”
Hu commented on the contrast between the prevalence of Asian culture in science fiction and the lack of Asian characters that continues in Hollywood today.
“One of the interesting things that you have in here is this strange tension where certain Asians are from the future and other Asians are from the past,” Hu said. “Whatever they are, they can’t be in the present, right? They can’t be in the thing that you actually see on the screen. They’re not allowed to be characters in the movies there.”
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Engineering junior Minsoo Kim said they felt the information conveyed in Suparak’s presentation was repetitive for Asian audiences, in particular, because it was heavily focused on analyzing examples of misappropriation.
“I know that movies are racist,” Kim said. “And this I think is a kind of blindingly obvious fact to a lot of Asian American people who are even thinking about this even a little bit.”
Despite this criticism, Kim said they believe the performance would be more informative for those in the audience who are not Asian and have not personally experienced or recognized techno-orientalism in popular culture.
“If you’re not Asian … then, I think that maybe this presentation could reveal a lot of things that you haven’t been thinking about (or) observing in the media that you’re watching,” Kim said. “In that case, (it was a) really valuable presentation.”
Art & Design junior Sonia Xiang, organization chair for the United Asian American Organizations, told The Daily they appreciated the more artistic, audience-focused method of multimedia lecture that Suparak utilized.
“The way it was presented was very digestible, with the music, with the elements of humor,” Xiang said. “I’m really happy that this performance was able to take place to further the interest into the topic … I think it opens up a really good starting point for discussions.”
Daily Staff Reporter Marissa Corsi can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that professor Tung-Hui Hu published a critical analysis of Western portrayals of Asian culture. Hu did not publish a critical analysis on this topic.