The Space Between: ‘Rethinking Canada 150: Networks and Nodes in Asian Canadian Visual Culture’

Jinny Yu’s mixed-media piece Black Matter (2013) materializes some of the oppositions that are endemic to the diasporic experience. As Homi K. Bhabha suggested in a recent keynote address, the experience of displacement lends itself to a series of oppositions such as those between stasis and becoming, settlement and unsettlement, that “exist side by side” so that one state never fully gives way to the other.1Bhabha, Homi K. “Mapping a Pluralist Space in Ismaili Studies”. Keynote, 2nd International Ismaili Studies Conference, Ottawa, March 9th 2017.

Black Matter, which Yu describes as a form of abstract self-portraiture, takes an aluminum surface as its base, upon which Yu has sprayed Korean ink. She notes that as a water-based medium, ink should not be able to stick such a surface and yet, it does. The piece is in a constant state of flux, as the ink is also responsive to changes that transpire within the space of its exhibition. As Yu notes, Black Matter provides a visual corollary to a series of phrases she uses to account for the shifting nature of her own identity: “A Korean in Korea; a Korean in Canada; a Korean Canadian in Canada; a Korean Canadian in Korea”.

Yu discussed Black Matter during the opening panel of the recent symposium “Re-thinking Canada 150: Networks and Nodes in Asian Visual Culture.” The piece, which foregrounds the precarious nature of ‘sticking’, offers up a nodal point that is at once concrete and fragile in its orientation, ready to dissolve and morph into something else at a moment’s notice. Yu’s artwork and presentation resonated strongly with many of the speakers at this conference, who espoused similar preoccupations with the struggles of ‘emplacement’. Based in Ottawa, ‘Rethinking Canada 150”, co-chaired by Ming Tiampo (Carleton) and Victoria Nolte (Carleton) is the last of a series of conferences that constitute part of a larger research project titled CANADA 150: Asian Canadians in Visual Culture. This project is the brainchild of Alice Ming Wai Jim, professor of Art History at Concordia University, one that she developed as a four- way, transnational partnership between her university and Carleton University, New York University and the University of British Columbia. As the title suggests, the project explores Asian Canadian representation in visual culture in an effort to complicate what constitutes the very nation that is the subject of 150th birthday celebrations.

‘Canada 150’ marks the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Canadian Confederation or the so-called founding of the nation.  However, many indigenous groups and activists have launched scathing critiques of this anniversary, rightfully arguing that to celebrate ‘Canada 150’ without problematizing it is to simply validate 150 years of settler colonialism while also erasing the indigenous history of this country, which predates the onset of colonial governance. This research project aligns itself with the position adopted by many of our indigenous peoples in striving to unveil the limitations of this commemorative framework but through an emphasis on Asian Canadian art and curatorial practices that interrogate singular or celebratory notions of Canadian nationhood.

“Rethinking Canada 150” drew together academics from many disciplines and placed them alongside practitioners to present scholarship, artwork and curatorial practices that explore various facets of this subject, extending beyond the confines of ‘Asian Canadian’ towards the notion of ‘Global Asias’.  Frederic Jameson argued fairly early on that the inherently transgressive nature of globalization, in its relentless mobilization of capital, can also be a productive force in fostering interdisciplinary approaches that prove necessary to apprehend its economic, social and political complexities.2Frederic Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (eds.), Cultures of Globalization (Durham: Durham University Press, 1998), p. xi. “Rethinking Canada 150” brings this promise to fruition in drawing together scholars who operate across disciplinary boundaries.

As one of the few scholars working exclusively on screen media at this conference, I wanted to write a report for Mediapolis that hones in on insights that might prove valuable for those of us researching the myriad relationships between screen media and the urban environment, writ large. I found myself drawn to the artists presenting material at this conference, which is demonstrative of the conference’s ‘success’ in facilitating cross-disciplinary encounters that prove to be productive.  Many of them emphasized the precarious nature of attachment, marked by instability, ephemerality and flux, which underwrites the dominant conception of the global as a series of interconnected networks. While the development of networks presupposes the formation of nodes, these artists direct our attention towards the tensions that envelop these moments of ‘sticking’. For example, during her keynote session, Vancouver-based artist, Jin-me Yoon discussed her photographic work, Souvenirs of the Self (1991) where she posed in a series of postcards situated in iconic Canadian landscapes, such as Banff. As she explained, she flattened the images of herself in these postcards, corresponding to the flattening effect produced by racialized forms of objectification. Yet her refusal to produce a touristic smile constitutes an act of defiance, so that the visual depiction of ‘emplacement’ in these postcards doesn’t simply stage the difficulty of belonging but also, the decision to remain in place in spite of it. Yoon used the phrase “the terms of belonging” when discussing the history of her artistic practice; the word ‘terms’ immediately situates ‘belonging’ as subject to certain conditions, ones that must be negotiated or, to use her words, “undone”.

“The terms of belonging” is precisely what is at stake across these and other works at the conference. Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, a research artist based in Stockholm, presented The Making of an Archive, a project that is comprised of a series of digitization workshops directed towards immigrant families with the aim of creating an archive of ‘multicultural Canada’. This is the identity of the nation propagated internationally since 1967 but, as Nguyễn notes, this particular vision of Canada continues to elude official documentation. Nguyễn’s project revisits and re-conceptualizes the ‘terms of national belonging’ through photographic images that make up a collective, unofficial archive of what it might really mean to live through Canada’s ‘multicultural’ experiment, including photographs of public protests and instances of transnational solidarity that disrupt any easy notion of settlement or integration. The “terms of belonging” as imagined and interrogated by these artists are made visible through spatial means and, more precisely, through the interactions between bodies and spaces that fracture any attempt to construct a single narrative of ‘Canada’. This generative phrase might prove prescient for work on screen media and spatiality more expansively, particularly in the present era now increasingly defined by the return of aggressive and exclusionary forms of nationalism intent on setting ‘terms for belonging’ that, as scholars, we must examine, question and resist.

Artists like Yu, Yoon and Nguyễn draw upon photographic as well as moving image technologies and reference points in their investigation of the complexities of attachment. Jinny Yu presented a video version of a second piece, Don’t They Ever Stop Migrating. In this site-specific work produced for the 56th Venice Biennale, Yu painted thousands of brush strokes resembling birds in a room, accompanied by a soundtrack of overlapping voices derived from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Yu’s repurposing of The Birds allows its soundtrack, comprised of phrases spoken by Melanie Daniel’s/Tippi Hedren such as “You don’t think there is something going around do you?” and “You’re frightening the children,” to speak to regressive attitudes toward the migration crisis of the contemporary period. Part of the unsettling nature of this work involves the discord between the flurry of activity that is elicited through sonic means and the stillness of the painted birds in the room, perhaps abstractly gesturing towards a similar disjuncture between those that express a hysterical fear of migration and its often dark reality that can involve long periods of stasis in holding cells or camps.  In this example,  stillness and mobility are positioned in a productive tension with each other, conveyed through a corresponding tension between different medial forms. Using the terminology of Andre Gaudrault and Phillipe Marion, we can argue that this site-specific pieces offer a “negotiated intermediality”, rife with various forms of repurposing, that they cite as significant to contemporary media-scapes characterized by “flux, contamination, interconnectedness and global ‘webs’…”.3André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, “The Cinema as a Model for the Genealogy of Media”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (8) 4, 2002: 16. This conference also suggests that a ‘negotiated intermediality’, a technique employed by practitioners working across media, might offer productive entry points for critical assessments and present-day evaluations of Jameson’s claim, particularly as intermedial practices are themselves often imbricated in the workings of globalization.

While “Rethinking Canada 150” facilitated considerations of the formation and the politics of networks and nodes in relationship to ‘Global Asias’, it is the space between these formations, spaces fraught with tension and precariousness but also brimming with possibility, that these artists foreground through techniques as varied as combining media, building an archive, or experimenting with ink on an unaccommodating surface. To make visible the process of becoming, to draw from the late Doreen Massey, is to view space as inherently malleable in its ability to house alternative futures and ways of being. As I noted in a tribute piece to Massey written for Mediapolis last summer, the notion of an alternative and indeed, of numerous alternatives, must be cultivated at the time when we are told that none are possible. ‘Rethinking Canada 150’ was a conference very much oriented towards the future, both with respect to the promise of further collaboration among participants and in its aim to find more progressive, inclusive and productive ways of inhabiting a national space, where we are only ever guests hosted by our indigenous peoples.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Bhabha, Homi K. “Mapping a Pluralist Space in Ismaili Studies”. Keynote, 2nd International Ismaili Studies Conference, Ottawa, March 9th 2017.
2. Frederic Jameson and Masao Miyoshi (eds.), Cultures of Globalization (Durham: Durham University Press, 1998), p. xi.
3. André Gaudreault and Philippe Marion, “The Cinema as a Model for the Genealogy of Media”, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies (8) 4, 2002: 16.

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