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.
“Many of the racist tropes that white filmmakers bolster come out of the colonialist attitude exhibited in phrases like ‘The world is your oyster,’” writes Suparak. Such sayings, she says, are emblematic of “the privilege to travel unfettered around the world and the white entitlement to pick and choose whatever catches your fancy from cultures that aren’t your own.”
In Suparak’s video essay, she emphasizes the importance of visual representation, noting that the American culture industry is just beginning to retell stories from the past that include people of color. “In order to imagine the future,” she insists, “it’s important to reimagine the past more accurately.”
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 Bay Area has long represented a fantastical idea of American futurity. Whether it be as the final frontier of western expansion, the unlimited wealth of the gold rush, the progressivism of the 60s, or, as of late, the site of high-tech innovation. Upholding each of these American myths requires the erasure of certain people; it requires that one story gets told at the expense of myriad alternative histories.
At the Berkeley Art Center, the precarious nature of physical space in the Bay Area—and who has access to it—is an organizing principle for curation. Executive Director Daniel Nevers emphasizes that with a distinguished building (designed by architect Robert Ratcliff) in an incredibly expensive city, he feels it is important to redistribute that resource to local artists whenever possible. With The Option To…, Nevers wanted to give artists money and the freedom to create whatever they like so that living and making art in the Bay Area could feel, if only temporarily, a little less precarious.
There is a question, during COVID-19, of whether our digital platforms will cohere into more accessible online communities or splinter us into endlessly algorithmic pods. This becomes especially relevant as many of the changes we’ve made in the last year feel increasingly permanent. The turn to digital exhibitions, for example, seems unlikely to go away. Nevers has already planned a second The Option To… digital show, which will take place regardless of local reopening plans.
With social encounters reduced by shelter-in-place orders, the politics of digital representation grow more and more important. The recent string of hate crimes against Asian people, which are motivated by many forms of racism, are being exacerbated by digital misrepresentations. The potential for violence imbued in science fiction films that present dehumanized versions of Asian people is clearly pressing.
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.
Watch ‘Virtually Asian’ online via the Berkeley Art Center. Details here.