Citizenship

Donate to an Anti-Racist Organization, Receive a Print

Today through August 25, donate $75 to Race ForwardShowing Up for Racial JusticeSouthern Poverty Law Center, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (Asian Law Caucus)Life After Hate, or United We Dream and show me the receipt, and I’ll mail you a letterpress print.

Pick from any of the Working Together prints. There are 15 total; see them all here.

All prints are letterpress-printed and carved from linoleum by hand, by me. Each one is 7 x 8.5 inches, and signed and numbered in a limited edition of 15. They were printed with the support of a Workspace Grant at the Center for Book Arts in NYC.

I made these prints because I’d rather work together than let ourselves be torn apart by hate.

 

Working Together (cover)

 

Equal Empowerment

 

Warmed By the Same Fire

 

Creative Sparks

 

Here’s another artist-fundraiser from Huong Ngo, where I learned about Life After Hate.

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Citizenship

Notes on Monuments

I am fascinated by the debate around Confederate monuments. (Anti-racist, anti-white supremacist action is, of course, paramount. I’ll return to that in a follow-up post.) Here are some reasons I’m fascinated with the dialogue around monuments.

Statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee being in New Orleans last May. Photo: Scott Threlkeld/AP

We are having a national conversation about public art.

Usually, art and artists are on the margins of society. It’s rare when art or issues around art are widely discussed by the mainstream.

Most Americans have never studied visual criticism, art history, or public art. They may have never made art, cast sculpture, or considered the role of public art. Some people even think they hate art and talking about it (“I like art that speaks for itself”). It’s very interesting to see so many Americans having strong opinions about monuments right now.

 

Monuments are an unlikely lightning rod.

I probably pass a dozen historical statues every week and rarely take notice of them. I take it for granted that they valorize dead white men. They don’t relate to me and they don’t appeal to me; I often find realism and portraiture visually boring. These statues mimic classical Greco-Roman style; they’re elevated on high plinths. This creates hierarchical assertions of power. I’d rather see democratic spaces that are flexible and responsive to local communities and contemporary concerns.

Statues of historical figures mostly convey significance. As didactic tools, their efficacy is limited. They lack the multiplicity of voices and perspectives that makes history compelling and relevant.

For white supremacists and anti-racists/anti-facists/Black Lives Matter activists (activists for racial justice), Confederate monuments are a battleground for a dialogue about race in America. It’s interesting that much larger, and more intangible cultural and political forces—ongoing systemic and institutional racism, of which police brutality has become increasingly visible and publicized due to digital technologies, and Trump’s fear-mongering nostalgia and xenophobia inflaming a base precarious due to neoliberalism and deindustrialization—are manifesting in a dialogue about relatively boring public art.

It is also fascinating how these sculptures have existed for decades, but their meanings have become heightened via political climate, political will, and people’s organizing.

 

What I learned in art school

It’s easy to ridicule the impracticality of art school. But ideas and skills I learned in art school inform how I understand monuments, which I find especially helpful right now.

  • Monuments are subjective. Via critical visual studies, one may deconstruct what is shown (i.e., a depiction of an idealized general, emphasizing honor and bravery, in a neoclassical style that lends prestige and timelessness) and what is not shown (i.e., the horrors of war, the people affected by war, slavery, and racial injustice).
  • Monuments serve agendas. Monuments are very expensive, heavy, space-taking tools for memory. That memory is crafted by the powerful. Many of the contested monuments were created in the Jim Crow era. They depict Robert E. Lee, but the contexts of their creations suggest that they memorialize a past when white power and privilege were legally and violently enforced.
  • Monuments are contestable. Everything is up for debate. Meaning relies on context, and context is variable. In fact, one of the most indisputable arguments for removing a Confederate statue is bad context to begin with (e.g., Lee’s connection to NOLA was insignificant, thus the statue was out of place anyway). And nothing is permanent. Only a small proportion of art is preserved. Museums regularly acquire and de-accession artworks. Preservation is subject to re-evaluation. (Though monuments aspire to look like they have stood since time-immemorial, societies decide if they’re going to maintain them, power-wash the pigeon poop, fix or ignore oxidation, patch erosion of the plinths, etc.) Monuments are parts of cities, and cities are layers—palimpsests that are constantly rewritten. Displaced monuments tell stories too.

 

Artists helped spark this debate.

Wynton Marsalis played a pivotal role in the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue in New Orleans. Artists can have political power. This is an important example of how artists make change by writing an op-ed and speaking to public officials.

 

What makes good public art?

Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local is a fantastic book for thinking about place and place-related art. She actually says that little public art is actually public—much is private because of whose interests it serves. She defines public art as

“accessible art of any species that cares about, challenges, involves, consults the audience for or with whom it is made, respecting the community and environment.”

Furthermore,

“a public art exists in the hearts, minds, ideologies, and educations of its audience, as well as in their physical, sensuous experiences.”

She also poses these questions:

Who defines public?
What defines a public space?
What kind of art occupies it best?
How does and can an art in the public realm communicate these ideas about place?
What are the responsibilities of a public artwork to the place, and to those who live there?

I like how this resonates with Marsalis’ proposal:

We should transform the current Lee Circle into an inviting space that celebrates the communal intentions of the international community that helped us survive Katrina. This place would fill the heart of our city with something uplifting for us all and for all times.

The removal of Confederate statues provides some opportunities to be more creative and generative.

Where should the sculptures go?

  • We could create a space like Memento Park in Budapest, a Communist statue graveyard for contemplation on dictatorship.
  • A museum of slavery or about the legacy of slavery. The presence there of displaced monuments would add dimension to how memorialization is ongoing.
  • Perhaps the bronze could be recycled into a sculpture that is more interesting, compelling, modern, and progressive. It could become a public park element like a fountain, bench, or shade that welcomes all.
  • Perhaps the statues can be chopped up into small pieces that are distributed as mementos of a successful anti-racist people’s movement. (I am aware of the gruesome resonances of this.)

What to do with an empty plinth?

I really like the Fourth Plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square. Originally meant to house a sculpture that was never made due to lack of funding, the empty plinth became a city-run platform for rotating public art commissions.

Of these, my favorite is Antony Gormley’s “One and Other.” The empty plinth became a stage for 2,400 UK residents to occupy as they liked, one at a time, for one hour at a time, for 100 days and nights. It’s a breath of fresh air to see living, diverse, wacky, everyday citizens use a place of prestige in a public space. Here’s a great video.

Antony Gormley, One and Other, 2009. Photo: Peter Maciarmid/Getty.

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"Seven Nations Cake, with arak liqueur from Iraq, hawash spice blend for Somalia, mastic from Yemen, qamar al-deen (apricot leather) from Syria, Shamshiri tea from Iran, dates for Libya, and sorghum for Sudan. With honey for sweetness and rose petals for a warm welcome home." // Source: Instagram @protestcake
Citizenship

Points of Reference: Resistance Day 16: Cakes, Spells, Dance, and Multi-Centeredness

It’s hard to keep up—much less synthesize—current events, so here is a collection of ideas that have been resonating with me… None more than this:

“No one action will be adequate. All actions will be necessary.”

—Jon Stewart as quoted by Dave Itzkoff, “Jon Stewart Savages Trump: ‘Purposeful, Vindictive Chaos,’” New York Times, February 1, 2017. (Please read in full, in fairness to comedic craft.)

 

Note to self: If I question the value of individual acts of resistance, remember that more is more.

Case in point: The #nobannowall opposition—protestors’ and lawyers’ rapid response at airports, the ACLU’s legal cases, the Brooklyn judge’s emergency order, the win achieved by Washington State’s Attorney General, and the strike self-organized by 1,000 NYC Yemeni bodega owners. (Side note: If self-employed, precarious bodega owners can demonstrate such a unified show of force, when will artists? Why were strikers in the #J20 art strike dispersed among art-world institutions?)

Protest Cakes’ Seven Nations Cake, distributed in last night’s #nobannowall protest at San Francisco City Hall.

"Seven Nations Cake, with arak liqueur from Iraq, hawash spice blend for Somalia, mastic from Yemen, qamar al-deen (apricot leather) from Syria, Shamshiri tea from Iran, dates for Libya, and sorghum for Sudan. With honey for sweetness and rose petals for a warm welcome home." // Source: Instagram @protestcake

“Seven Nations Cake, with arak liqueur from Iraq, hawash spice blend for Somalia, mastic from Yemen, qamar al-deen (apricot leather) from Syria, Shamshiri tea from Iran, dates for Libya, and sorghum for Sudan. With honey for sweetness and rose petals for a warm welcome home.” // Source: Instagram @protestcake.

Illustrator and comic book artist Yumi Sakugawa‘s recent drawing/meditation:

"Intersectional, intergenerational, intergalactic, international, interconnection. Even if it takes years, decades, centuries-- any unit of time beyond my lifetime and my theoretical grandchildren's lifetime-- I believe in action, I believe in compassion, I believe in a plane of existence where peace is the default and not the exception. Do what you can to show up. Every gesture matters." Source: Instagram: @YumiSakagawa.

“Intersectional, intergenerational, intergalactic, international, interconnection. Even if it takes years, decades, centuries– any unit of time beyond my lifetime and my theoretical grandchildren’s lifetime– I believe in action, I believe in compassion, I believe in a plane of existence where peace is the default and not the exception. Do what you can to show up. Every gesture matters.” Source: Instagram: @YumiSakagawa.

Victoria Graham’s projects about casting spells:

Jenifer k Wofford’s NO SCRUBS intervention: joy in the face of repression, cultural workers making revolution irresistible, with women of color to the front.

"NO SCRUBS was a boisterous, fun dance brigade that injected playfulness into the SF and Oakland Women's Marches. Their focused energy was fueled by fun, feisty tunes by women of color and quirky protest signs." Organized by Jenifer k Wofford. // Source: Instagram @100DaysAction

“NO SCRUBS was a boisterous, fun dance brigade that injected playfulness into the SF and Oakland Women’s Marches. Their focused energy was fueled by fun, feisty tunes by women of color and quirky protest signs.” Organized by Jenifer k Wofford. // Source: Instagram @100DaysAction

Krista Tippett: “A cynic would say, ‘…they’re just drops in the ocean.’”

Larry Ward, dharma teacher and Baptist minister:

“That is true. I am a drop in the ocean, but I’m also the ocean. I’m a drop in America, but I’m also America.”

—From “Being Peace in a World of Trauma,” On Being, July 14, 2016.

 


Reflections on immigration, racial identity, and place

My mom's Chinese New Year's preparations this year included tamarind, which she used to eat fresh from a neighborhood tree in Vietnam.

My mom’s Chinese New Year’s preparations. Citrus and lettuce represent wishes for prosperity. Tamarind is not a traditional offering, but my mom likes it because there was a tamarind tree near her home in Vietnam. In Chinese, pink is considered light red, the color of luck.

Wall text from "Land of Opportunity" at the San Mateo History Museum, Redwood City, CA.

Wall text from “Land of Opportunity” at the San Mateo History Museum, Redwood City, CA.

I flew back to the Bay Area to visit family. The next day, Lunar New Year, the Muslim ban, and the gravity of DJT’s reckless nationalism began.

I watched videos of protests at SFO and JFK as my mom happily arranged Chinese New Year’s offerings for peace and prosperity. It was surreal to think that my parents—who came to the US to escape war and fear of persecution in Vietnam and mainland China—might not be welcomed today.

I didn’t do anything to earn citizenship. I was granted citizenship because I was born here—a simple quirk at the complex nexus of my parent’s tremendous sacrifices and generations of people who fought for equality. When I think about how hard immigrants have to work to become naturalized, it makes me want to be deserving of citizenship. Engaging as an active citizen seems a small price.

At the San Mateo History Museum, I saw register books for “enemy aliens”—Japanese, German and Italian Americans. I thought about how such xenophobic, unconstitutional acts seemed like relics of the past not too long ago, but could be seen as part of a racist continuum now (and indeed have been cited as legal precedents).

My past internalized racism also came to light. A a youth I disdained the peninsula and the South Bay; I thought they were boring and lacked culture and worldliness. But I looked at things differently as I drove around San Mateo and visited a pan-Southeast Asian Buddhist temple in San Jose. While the region may be short on high or alternative cultures, its unfussy integration of Asian and Pacific Islander cultures into suburbia with mid-century vernacular architecture and design, is specific and kind of wonderful.

It renews my gratitude to call  both the San Francisco Bay Area and Queens home. What I love most about the two are their richness of cultural diversity and the simpatico afforded by progressivism and tolerance. I don’t feel split or unrooted. I feel “multi-centered.” Is that such an odd proposition? My mom is shaped by three countries—the one of her heritage, the one where she was raised, and the one she emigrated to.

I just started reading Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (1997). The idea of belonging to a place, and at the same time, to an interconnected world, seems especially meaningful.


Notes for forward movement

Some tidbits of creative inspiration:

  • The lion dance is said to have originated when villagers were tormented by a monster, so in defense they sewed a costume and choreographed a dance. Their united power scared the monster away.
  • 2017 is the Year of the Rooster. The rooster is in charge of time and starting a new day.

Positive psychology researcher Shane Lopez’s Hope Map exercise is a set of instructions to identify goals, pathways, obstacles, and methods (in other words, ways and means) of overcoming obstacles. [Updated link.]

[I’ve been holding on to this one because it’s like a make things (happen) activity waiting to happen, if presented as visually-oriented handout for download. But it seems worth sharing now; the time is ripe for planning and self-determined goals.]

L-R: (1) My assumed schema. (2) Kevin's described schema. (3) A proposed revision.

L-R: (1) My assumed schema. (2) Kevin’s described schema. (3) A proposed revision.

I liked how Kevin Chen recently described five areas of life (figure 2): a romantic relationship, friendships, family, practice, and job(s). In this schema, “productivity” accounts for only two-fifths of life, and relationships account for a majority.

I realized that I’d held a three-part schema (figure 1): work, practice, and personal life. This short-changed other people and explained why I always felt like I was failing someone.

I suppose I might add two more “houses” to a revised schema (figure 3): “me-time” and citizenship/civic engagement. This might be a temporary mode for the next few years, that incorporates both activism and self-care. In this case, people still occupy the majority.

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Erik Drooker, Flood, Dark Horse Books, 1992

Erik Drooker, Flood, Dark Horse Books, 1992 [Source: Drooker.com]

Eric Drooker, Blood Song, Dark Horse Books, 2002

Eric Drooker, Blood Song, Dark Horse Books, 2002 [Source: Drooker.com]

Today, a pot of pink daisies jolted me from a low-level state of sadness and self-pity by reminding me of a scene in Eric Drooker’s Flood. I probably last read Flood almost a decade ago. But its emotional power hasn’t diminished, even via memory.

If you haven’t yet read Drooker’s graphic novels, do! They’re amazing. I’ve discussed some of the stunningly elegant compositions at length in my workshops. And moreover, I think of them especially now because Drooker doesn’t shy away from depicting the terror of state violence, nor affirming life, creativity, and resistance. There is empathy, joy, and ferocity in these stories.

One of the most remarkable things about Hidden Figures (also recommended) is how it makes vivid the mundane and constant ways that systems of injustice dehumanize all involved. I hope that we are entering period of sustained resistance, and though powers will do everything they can to misdirect, exhaust, and numb us, we will insist on being staying human, listening, and keeping our hearts open.

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Eric Drooker’s Flood and Blood Song

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Citizenship

Points of Reference: Artists’ Power of Ungovernability

A few points of reference from this week of flourishing resistance.

Afire with revolutionary love

I made and gifted this papercut-and-ink poster. It was inspired by Rep. John Lewis and Susan O’Malley. Still learning.

Last night, I co-hosted a Protest Sign Work Party. We supplied paper in fluorescent red, aqua blue, navy blue, gold, and silver. I was elated to see a lot of great paper-cutting, hand lettering, and creative messages. It was heartening to hold space, share, and prepare for the NYC Women’s March on Saturday, among other actions.

Thanks to SOHO20, Rachel Vera Steinberg, everyone who braved the rain and cold to participate, and Materials for the Arts (an amazing NYC city institution!).

The power of artists

I love what Culture Strike posted about the power of artists’ resistance.

[…] has also been having a very hard time finding musicians to perform at his inauguration ceremony, making him angry. This proves that even a person like […] understands the power of music and culture, and not having a legit cultural icon performing at his ceremony supports the notion that artists and cultural workers do not stand by him, his administration, nor his rhetoric. It shows just how powerful artists are and how much influence [we] have.*

Saying no to opportunities can be trying, but it’s a choice we all have, and we have to exercise it to understand our capacities to resist. We can’t afford complicity. Now is a time for opposition (we can oppose with revolutionary love; see Representative John Lewis’ interview with Krista Tippett on On Being).

*As per my last post about not re-inscribing power, I redacted the name. I’ll try out different ways to avoid adding to […]’s over-representation. The parens and ellipse are sort of nice because power is inherently empty (H/T Amanda Curreri), and those who occupy it can be displaced (H/T Kerry James Marshall).

Social purpose

Friday’s ArtStrike is spurring soul-searching among some artists, who question the efficacy of participating. To me the answer is obvious: collective action is comprised of personal actions. But that’s hard to see without a sense of social purpose.

Perhaps, if it develops social purpose, then the project of seeing ourselves as interdependently entangled, and as agents, not subjects is necessary and urgent work.

Autocracy & emotional self-determination

An autocracy is a system of government in which supreme power is concentrated in the hands of one person, whose decisions are subject to neither external legal restraints nor regularized mechanisms of popular control (except perhaps for the implicit threat of a coup d’état or mass insurrection). (Wikipedia)

One aspect of autocracy that offends is the intentional disregard for others. The autocrat exempts himself from principles foundational to social bonding: fairness, mutuality, accountability, integrity. (As M said, the spectrum of possibilities of the unreasonable continues to widen.) Simultaneously, being emotionally immature, thin-skinned, reactionary, petty, and vindictive describes a counter-example of how to be in the world. I would like to craft my resistance on my terms, to self-determine my emotional tone of resolve.

Artists/Ungovernables

While organizing artists is notoriously difficult—like “herding cats” as the cliché goes—maybe that means, optimistically, we’re inclined towards ungovernability.

ungovernable: not capable of being governed, guided, or restrained; not submissive to government or control (Mirriam-Webster)

OK, you’ve got cats, artists, ungovernability—this is so meme-ready, artists. Go with it!

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Citizenship

Swimming Against the Tide

Writing OUR Story.

I’ve been getting ready for the Protest Sign Work Party at SOHO20 on Tuesday, as well as my submission to 100 Days Action. As I’ve brainstormed messages and actions I’d like to see in the world, I’ve been thinking about these wise words from Just Seeds:

The more we represent [Trump]—no matter in what light—the more we re-inscribe him with power. Instead, focus on graphics that support the social movements that existed before Trump and will be fighting to exist after he is long gone.

This is from their Inaugurating Resistance call for graphics. Their statement of principles is worth sharing:

It is enticing to want to use his image to belittle him, but no matter how successful we are at doing that, ultimately we’re still left with another picture of him. This sets him up as the center of our visual dialog, and makes it even harder to imagine our world without his toxic presence. This is even true—if to a lesser extent—when we play off and reproduce catch phrases and language.

We existed before him, and we are fighting to exist after he is gone. We need to create a graphic front of refusal. Those of us with the skills and resources to design and produce it have a responsibility to do so. We have a responsibility to force into the public consciousness the things we WANT. … We have to fight the incoming administration and their agenda, but not at the expense of the power we were already building. We will only stop the machine when our movements get stronger.

…we want—and need—to focus on building people’s power.

I’m trying to extend this thinking to how I focus my attention and efforts.

Bad news is available daily in unlimited quantities. I’ve been thinking about it as a river current; pervasive negativity will carry you downstream if you let it. Sometimes you have to swim to stay in the same place. What is the counteraction? How do you preserve psychological wellbeing?

I am trying to craft my own news feed, and inundate it with the individuals and organizations building people power with resolve and exuberance. It’s like making a daily mood board and the mood is “F*** YEAH.” (Insisting on optimism is challenging for some; I think it’s worth remembering that the human mind is over-attuned to the negative, so intentionally focusing on the positive is a movement towards balance.)

Here’s what I’d put on my “F*** YEAH” board:

The Amplifier Foundation-supported posters for the Women’s March

Stephanie Syjuco’s Reap What You Sew banners

Writers organizing: WritersResist.org

Theatre folk organizing: Action 1/19 at 5:30 pm in front of theaters across the US. TheGhostlightProject.com (At first glance it looks like a selfie meme but the action kit is a well-thought-out how to intended to kick off further organization.)

Queens Museum’s Sign of the Times event: The museum is closing for ArtStrike on 1/20 but open for poster-making. Lots of partners involved. Taking a stand, holding space, and forging alliances… Fantastic.

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