Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Jumping The Gun: Responding to Challenging Artworks (featuring Terrorist Balloons!)

Terrorist Balloons, Vlad Nanca (2005)
print on balloon, dimensions variable

I originally came across images from Romanian artist Vlad Nanca's 2005 installation Terrorist Balloons on ILOVEBADTHINGS, a blog/art project dedicated to showcasing violent/disturbing/sexual/ "dark" artworks (fair warning: some of the artworks pictured are NSFW) and I followed the link back to his site. Nanca writes,

"The Terrorist Balloon is my answer the question of terrorism. It's something little that needs to be inflated and played with in order to have some fun. When inflated it needs to be treated carefully so it doesn't pop."

I knew I wanted to write about this work, but I hesitated because I wasn't sure how I felt about it. I am an artist who makes work that is sometimes thought of as "controversial" so my default stance is to grant other artists the benefit of the doubt. While contemporary audiences are extremely sophisticated, they are also used to getting their culture with reference points built right in. That's one of the pleasures of pop culture, the comforting way it refers to itself. But, no matter how subversive the content might be, the overall effect is conservative: You always know where (and who) you are in relation to what you are seeing. So the thing that makes it comforting is also what keeps it from challenging the status quo. But that is not the case with artwork that has a conceptual element. One of its functions is to confound your expectations and destabilize you a bit, which is why that kind of artwork often makes people angry. And when you add racial, ethnic and/or religious content to the mix then it gets even more difficult to engage with conceptual art. In other words, it is easy to jump the gun and condemn artworks that engage with complex issues in a way that opens them up, instead of shutting them down. Which brings me back to Nanca's Terrorist Balloons.

This installation consists of balloons that have been printed with the image of eyes and a mouth peeking out from openings in the black latex. They recall criminals in ski masks and, when clustered together, women in hijab. The ambiguity of this work is fascinating from an art perspective, but potentially troubling from a political one. On one hand, I love that Nanca has taken an innocuous children's object and imbued it with vague menace. And there are no overt racial/ethnic markers attributed to the faces hidden in the image... although the everyday conflation of "terrorist" with "Arab/Muslim" often acts as a shorthand, which takes the place of more overt depictions. Arguably, that collapse is activated by the blackness of the balloons, especially when they are displayed together. The now-iconic Western image of groups of Arabs/ Muslims with covered faces (male insurgents and female hijabis) is a reference here. And, when displayed deflated the Terrorist Balloons recall hijab even more strongly.

The cluster of inflated balloons reminds me of another work by Palestinian-American artist Mary Tuma, Homes for the Disembodied, which is interesting to consider as a contrast.

Homes For the Disembodied, Mary Tuma 2000, remade 2003
50 meters of continuous fabric, fallen trees, thread, stones, wire.
approximately 10' x 25' x 7' (dimensions variable)

Like Nanca, Tuma used benign materials to suggest unsettling groups of faceless figures. And, like Terrorist Balloons, there is no indication in Homes For the Disembodied that the long, empty, semi-transparent black garments represent specifically Middle Eastern subjects. She writes, in her artists' statement,

" I am interested in the sorting of images from the past, images that are like shadows or ghosts, something not quite whole and no longer real but still of great influence and power. In most of these works there is evidence of loss—an allusion to the passing of time; a vacant space within a form once occupied; an identity that merges fully with it's environment... There is an intangible "place" where the body becomes an emotional landscape. Though I cannot define this, it is a goal of the work to describe that place."

While this description applies to the entire range of her work, Tuma's ethnic background provides an inevitable context for her thoughts about absence, bodies and place. Like many contemporary trans-national artists of Palestinian descent Tuma has created work that does not directly reference her ethnic heritage or Palestine/Israel. However, Tuma has created a category on her site for works that are intentionally designed to engage Palestine, and images of Homes For the Disembodied are archived there, so it is reasonable to assume that this context is integral to the work. Tuma has displayed Homes For the Disembodied at New York's Bridge Gallery (where I saw it in person) for the Made in Palestine show, which toured the United States. While Nanca's Terrorist Balloons have appeared at Bucharest's DSBA Gallery, for their Errorism Show, and more recently in London for Pictures On Walls (POW) Open Day.

Terrorist Balloons, London, POW Open Day (2008)

While the parallels between these works are provocative to consider--both made from simple materials, both evoking intangible presences, both designed to float above your sight-line, etc--the differences in their underlying politics make them distinct. Nanca writes that this work is an answer to the "question of terrorism", but never says exactly what that question is for him. In the absence of another explanation, it may be that the "question of terrorism" that Nanca is portraying here is the notion that Arabs/Muslims may seem benign and even ridiculous, but unless handled carefully might explode.
For me, Terrorist Balloons is a European image of the invisible threat of contemporary terrorism, with its Arab and Muslim boogeymen around every corner. While Tuma's Homes For the Disembodied is a ghostly evocation of Arab/Muslim/ Palestinian bodies that aren't charged with explosive potential, but instead are all that is left in its aftermath.


(And that is not rhetorical, I am really asking. You don't need to be an artist or an art scholar to have a valuable opinion here).

Sunday, July 26, 2009

It's Big And It's Bland/ Full of Tension and Fear/They Do It Over There/But We Don't Do It Here*

Photo credits: Remy de la Mauviniere/AP Photo, Valerio Mezzanotti for The New York Times, Giulio di Mauro/EPA, Karl Prouse/Chris Moore for The New York Times, Benoit Tessier/REUTERS, Remy de la Mauviniere/AP

I am not a fashion guy. I pretty much wear the same pair of jeans/shoes over and over until they fall apart and then buy another pair. I like getting cleaned up every now and then and putting on a suit... but I don't really have a "wearing a suit" kind of life. (And lets face it, a well-made suit kind of does all the work for you, doesn't it?) So I suppose, despite living in New York and seeing models wobble down the street on their determined stick-legs on a pretty regular basis, I never think about fashion.

So when I came across an article about the influence of traditional Middle Eastern clothing on current men's fashion in the online version of the New York Times Style magazine T, during research for something else, I skated right past it. But then, out of some weird habit I checked the comment thread and became fascinated by the responses so I went back to read the article, and I thought perhaps it deserved a once-over in this space.

From Paris | Designers Look East

by Stefano Tonchi

"We live in a time where images of the Middle East are everywhere and nowhere.

All around America, every morning when we pick up the newspaper and each time we turn on the television, we see faces of the Middle East, women and men dressed in a mix of Western and traditional clothes; then we hear the reports from Baghdad and Kabul.

We cannot, for a minute, forget the identity of these peoples and cultures, but, at the same time, we are removed from their experiences. In Europe, the cultural impact of Middle Eastern peoples on everyday life is much more integrated, more visible and deep. Because of the continent’s history of colonialism — from the Ottoman empire through the expansion of French and British rule — Europe lives with the memory of political and financial domination, which also includes a few ironic reversals of fortune: some of the most exclusive addresses and institutions in Paris and London are now largely owned by people of Middle Eastern backgrounds who once lived under colonial rule.

In France, the speed of integration has been a political football for President Sarkozy, who has more than once called out the police to monitor head scarves in public schools. More positively, the actor Tahar Rahim was the main character in the French movie that won at Cannes, and the artist Adel Abdessemed had the best spot in François Pinault’s collection shown during the Venice Biennale. Indeed, Arab surnames are now part of mainstream French culture, and not just among inhabitants of far-off suburbs.

So it is no surprise, then, that French designers often look to the Middle East as they recently did in Paris. I am not saying that they do it consciously — I never think of fashion designers as sociologists or philosophers — still they have more sensitive antennae than most and, somehow, they are able to catch, usually subconsciously, the spirit of the times.

Some of these references were already present in Milan in Donatella Versace’s collection and in a general trend for washed linen and light cottons in multiple layers worn over floppy pants. The look relied more on Peter O’Toole in “Lawrence of Arabia” and Tyrone Power in “Beau Geste” than on any contemporary street fashion. Paris was different. How Middle Eastern immigrants dress on the street made it to the runways.

Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy did it better then anybody else, leaving behind nostalgia and vintage references and looking straight into the eyes of modern immigrant youth culture mixing Western pop references — he was working on the costumes for the Michael Jackson “This Is It” tour — with graphic black-and-white keffiyeh-esque prints, baseball hats, long-tailed shirts and sweats with punk tartan for a raw but sophisticated, Arabesque grunge look. Tisci is the youngest of the established designers in Paris, and he showed that he still has his fingers on the pulse of what happens outside the doors of the Avenue Montaigne atelier.

In his own collection, John Galliano traveled to the shores of North Africa but more in time than in space. Galliano always keeps moving but never leaves his own comfortable personal history. So, this time, the Galliano man was a French soldier, a Napoleon Bonaparte, visiting Egypt and sending home beautiful memories.

In the same day, Kris Van Assche raided the North African wardrobe too and borrowed the djellabas, the long shirts and the roomy pants for alight-headed pastiche of voile and mussoline, losing along the way that strong masculinity that makes the Middle Eastern look so intense and opposite to our Western, almost unisex fashion.

Stefano Pilati at YSL and Rick Owens had their own deeply personal take on the trend. Rick Owens is not new to layering long T-shirts, shirts and jackets over pants of different lengths. His men always look like fashion soldiers, draped in mad, greige jerseys over heavy military boots. Pilati’s take is part of his ongoing research into redefining the canons of contemporary men’s wear outside the French tradition. Starting with the fabrics and following with his reshaping of the jacket, short and lean, and the pants, wide and high-waisted, he layered each garment on top of each other to create a metropolitan time traveler much in synch with the mood of the season.

Behind the surface of men’s fashion something is changing and, as different ethnicities melt into every neighborhood, so wardrobe elements from different cultures mix into our way of dressing. It is not only in President Obama’s Cairo speech that the change is showing but also in our attitudes and our clothes."

And then, below the main piece:

"Update | July 10, 1:09 p.m. The post has been edited to correct inaccuracies pointed out by several readers. The original article misidentified several cities and countries as Arab."

While it seems that Tonchi had good intentions he went ahead and perpetuated several of the same myths about the Middle East and its peoples that conservatives do, which goes to show how pervasive they are. In his zeal to make the point that Middle Eastern images penetrate western culture, despite its antipathy toward the region and its peoples, Tonchi flattened various cultural, ethnic and religious differences into an undifferentiated mass. As several comments pointed out, his mistakes would have been easily corrected, but the fact that they went unquestioned --not only by Tonchi, but his editors-- shows the ubiquity of orientalist and Islamophobic thinking, even among liberals.

The first comment on the thread, by a poster named Mary-Laure called Tonchi out on his various mistakes, writing:

"It’s really sad to see that despite the coverage that the Muslim world gets, such a publication as yours gets basic facts plain wrong.

The Afghan people are NOT Arabs.
The Ottoman Empire / Turkey is CERTAINLY NOT Arab.
Again: all Muslims are NOT Arabs. The country with the most Muslims for instance is Indonesia - not Arabs.
(Incidentally, some Arabs are not Muslim: Maronites in Lebanon, Coptic Christians in Egypt etc)
Arabs are mainly found in the Middle East (bar Iranians) and in Northern Africa (bar Berber groups).

Please get such basic, basic facts right. You’re showing much disregard for accuracy and disrespect for people beyond our borders."

These sentiments were cosigned by several others, prompting the update and re-edit.

Zaaviyah wrote,
"I hope the author realizes that he has bunched a whole variety of people into “Arabs”. Are you somehow suggesting that Kabul is in the Middle East?"

NK wrote,
"Does NYTimes employ 'Accuracy Editors'?
Or, is there deliberate attempt to portray 'others' in a certain way? 'All the people to fit our agenda' ?"

Sarah wrote,
"How inaccurate…it is Pakistani style that has flooded the streets in the last few years…Paki and Afghan baggy trousers and long shirts..not Arab…and yes Afghans are not Arabs and neither are Pakistani’s and none of this is new, it’s been around for 2 years at least…but nobody noticed..because officially we must hate everything about them….Men covering their faces is Tuareg, Berber and Afghan…none of that is Arab..Muslim yes Arab no…where did this reporter get their job? Friend of the family? No wonder people are so ignorant of other cultures…guess where they get it from..and then they say that reading is good for you."

(..And I thought to myself, "Interesting point, Sarah, but isn't "Paki" a slur? Sigh.)

Sherif in New York wrote,
"Wait a minute, did you just say that Kabul is an Arab city?

Uhm, are you serious? Is this some kind of ignorant joke?

Can you people get anything right?

Kabul is in Afghanistan. There are many ethnicities in Afghanistan, unarguably, none of them are Arab.

Arabs live in the Arab World. 22 countries where the main language is, you guessed it, Arabic.

Please, please, for once, just do your jobs. Write facts, don’t make up stuff. Please, why is it so hard? If I don’t do my job right, I get fired, you don’t do your job right, you get published in the Times. Weird!"

Joe (not me) wrote,
"The notion that all Muslims are Arabs would be an amusing statement if it wasn’t in the New York Times. Did Sarah Palin do the editing for this article? I understand that this is just the style section but even an elementary understanding of geography and access to wikipedia should have prevented this error."

A poster named Ge-Jian put the fashion trend Tonchi was focusing on into a political context, writing,
"How ironic. Burqa is virtually banned in France by the president, but the Parisian designers exoticize Arab clothes including the headscarf…"

Of course, since the Middle East and its peoples were the topic there were inevitable slurs as well.

Michael wrote,
"Another manifestation of the 'Stockholm Syndrome.'"

... Which shows that he does not understand what "Stockholm Syndrome" means... unless Michael imagines himself the helpless captive of expensively dressed Arabs (perhaps in his fantasies?).

Julie A. wrote:
"'… the most exclusive neighborhoods and institutions in Paris and London are now largely Arab-owned.'

This is the frightening thought I took away from this otherwise inconsequential article.

Look out America — we’re next!"

Julie's horror at having to purchase her expensive luxury goods from Arab shopkeepers is too sad to be offensive (at least to me). Although embedded in this silly woman's "fear" is an echo of the orientalist terror of conquest/contagion from the East, so it shouldn't be overlooked or excused because it appears on a fashion page. A similar example of venerable Islamophobic sentiment is on display in a comment left by Tom Jones, who wrote,

"Baloney. Why dress like a slave to some backward 7th-century thinking?"

Luckily, these sentiments did not go entirely unchallenged. Liz Easely commented:

"#10 Julie A - you’re racist. As for the article, Poster #1 is dead on - please Mr. Tonchi - stick to fashion and fabrics, not history and ethnography - you really do not know what you are doing. I understand the spirit of you observation/argument, but it rests on wrong data."

Some posters focused on the clothes themselves and not on the misguided (and arguably unintentional) misstatements within the article itself.

Lorraine wrote,
"living in Israel (and being a stylist..) i see some beautifully dressed muslim (sic) young women dressed in modest by very beautiful clothes. They are covered - only their faces and hands are shown but beautiful clothes. I am most impressed… what these girls where on the street are better than the “fashionable boring” clothes in the article! Look to the streets designers and get a view of real people!"

RCH wrote,
"I expect the Pushto pants and Qamees or shirt to fly off the shelves as obese, wealthy westerners discover they can conceal their guts with style and sass! The colors, on the other hand, look like the stuff worn by the big-bottomed ladies in Pushtun musicals…or the 'Peach Boys'."

Arab_Guy wrote,
"Those 'designs' are more of an insult to Arab culture than anything else. Not even Arab hobos dress that way."

And Megan brought the two lines of though together, writing,
"Since when do all Arab men dress like Alladin?"

... Exactly. Once, during my Masters a classmate suggested, since our class was so diverse, that we all come to class in our "native dress." I pulled at my t-shirt and glanced down at my sneakers and said, "This is my native dress, I was born in Delaware."

* While you are contemplating the above please enjoy David Bowie's Fashion.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

HOPE & Wisteria performance at the National Black Theatre Festival

What: HOPE & Wisteria performance at the National Black Theatre Festival
When: August 6 and 7, 8 pm
Where: Hanes Auditorium, Salem Fine Arts Center,
Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC

"Wisteria is a multimedia performance based on poems by Kwame Dawes, poet in residence at the University of South Carolina. Composer Kevin Simmonds set these poems to music, exploring the lives of women who lived through the years of Jim Crow segregation. Wisteria features photographs from the Richard Samuel Roberts Collection of the Carolina Library at the University of South Carolina and an exceptional ensemble of musicians and performers, most of them from North and South Carolina, including Valerie Johnson, an instructor of music and the choir director at Bennett College.

This company also performs HOPE, the Dawes/Simmonds collaboration that grew out of a Pulitzer Center commission to report on the impact of HIV/AIDS on Jamaica, the country where Kwame Dawes grew up. While in Jamaica Dawes wrote poems in response to the stories he heard. These poems are at the heart of HOPE: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica, a project that encompasses essays for The Washington Post and The Virginia Quarterly Review, two short documentaries for public television, a one-hour radio documentary.

LiveHopeLove.com, a multimedia web presentation of the project designed by bluecadet interactive, won the 2008 WEBBY People’s Voice Award for best use of art in website design, and is nominated for a News and Documentary Emmy Award for new approaches to news and documentary programming. Hope’s Hospice, a collection of Kwame Dawes' poetry from the project, with images by Joshua Cogan, has just been published by Peepal Tree Press. A one-hour radio documentary of HOPE airs Sunday Aug. 2 at 7 pm on WFDD, the Wake Forest University public radio station.

The National Black Theatre Festival, the nation’s premier venue for black theater companies, celebrates its 20th year August 3-8 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Wisteria & HOPE will be among over 100 performances in a weeklong festival that will also feature workshops, seminars and international colloquia."

Learn more: http://www.pulitzercenter.org/openitem.cfm?id=1573

Friday, July 24, 2009

CONFLUX FESTIVAL 2009 / Submission Deadline Extended

Big Brother In Drag, Jill Magid (2007)


ConfluxCity Deadline Extended!

"The sixth annual Conflux Festival, the art and technology festival for the creative exploration of urban public space, will take place September 17-20, 2009 and will be hosted by New York University.

In keeping with its commitment to urban artistic exploration, community participation, shared knowledge, and critical civic engagement, Conflux will organize a user-generated open format event on Sunday September 20th, 2009 from 10am-6pm.

Through an open submissions process, ConfluxCity will provide a platform for artists, urban geographers, technologists and others to organize and produce innovative activities dedicated to the examination, celebration and (re)construction of everyday urban life.

Drawing inspiration from Burning Man’s creed of radical self-reliance and BarCamp’s philosophy of openness and participation, ConfluxCity will adopt an open-space approach in which participants will be expected to organize, promote, and host their own activities and events. To facilitate this format, the Conflux Festival headquarters and website will serve as a central communications hub directing festival attendees outward to individual event websites and locations.

In response to the high level of interest in the initial call as well as requests for more time, the Conflux Team has extended the "ConfluxCity" submissions deadline through Saturday, August 15, 2009. We hope this extra time will allow all interested artists an opportunity to participate. Please help us spread the word."

To submit a proposal to participate in the festival, please see the submission guidelines at the Conflux Festival website: http://confluxfestival.org/2009/submit-a-project/.

The deadline for submissions has been extended to August 15, 2009.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Archival Fever of the Nakba - The Memoirs of Mohammed Khachan

Alwan for the Arts Presents:

Book Reading and Discussion: The Archival Fever of the Nakba - The Memoirs of Mohammed Khachan
Thursday, July 30, 2009 7:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts
Free and Open to the Public

"The seismic proportions of the catastrophe of 1948, not merely the tragedies that took place at a particular time, but also the enduring project of displacement and appropriation, are intuited by every Palestinian and by Arabs the world over. The Nakba is not an event relegated merely to the short span of individual memory. Rather, it is a transformational predicament that has shaped the careers, psychological makeup, and vision of millions of people over generations.

As memories of that experience enter the annals of history, the physical records of it, through memoir, documentary, photographs, letters, and transcripts, create a feverish, profuse archive of representations and images. Paradoxically, the nostalgic reconstruction of memory of what once was has inscribed into it forgetfulness-which does not limit itself to repression-and thus it commends into the present the possibility and specter of the future.

About the Author:
Mohammed Kamel Khachan was born in Suhmata, Palestine, in 1934. In 1948, he became a refugee in Lebanon. He studied Arabic Literature and Education at the Arab University of Beirut and taught at United Nations (UNRWA) schools for 32 years. He started writing his memoir in 2007 which currently being serialized in various Arab literary websites and newspapers. Presently, he is working on a book of essays on features of life in Palestine before 1948, including traditions, flora and fauna, proverbs, idioms, words and dialects that are unique to Palestine. He is also working on a book of poems dedicated to the memory of his wife who lost her life in the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon."

Alwan for the Arts is wheelchair accessible.

Alwan for the Arts

16 Beaver Street, 4th Floor (bet. Broad & Broadway)
New York, NY 10004
(646) 732-3261

TRAINS: 4/5 to Bowling Green; J/M/Z to Broad St.; R/W to Whitehall St.; 1 to Rector St. or South Ferry; 2/3 to Wall St.; A/C to Broadway-Nassau
BUSES: M1, M6, M9, M16, M20.
BIKE: Hudson Rvr. Greenway, East Rvr. path, Liberty St., Broadway, Water St.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Pop Mythology, Buying and Selling: A Report from the First Asian American Comic Con

On my way out the door to attend the first-ever Asian American Comic Con in New York City last week I turned on the TV to keep my (awesome, but needy) dog company and suddenly my apartment was filled with the Owen Wilson/Jackie Chan vehicle Shanghai Noon. I averted my eyes (I can't look at Owen Wilson’s face... I am sure he is a nice person who loves his mom but his nose, with its various planes and levels, is like an SAT math question). I changed the channel but not before Wilson could point that dodecahedron at the camera and say “She’s not the killer. She’s just a very, very, very, hot confused Chinese girl.” I looked at the dog and said, “Boy, these personal ads just write themselves, don’t they?” The dog gave me nothing, so I settled on a soothing infomercial about mineral-based makeup and left for the Con. But the random intrusion of that orientalist/sexist joke was a weird preface to the rest of the afternoon.

The Asian American Comic Con was presented by Secret Identities Media (the folks who gave us Secret Identities: the Asian American Superhero Anthology), The Asian American Writers workshop, Greg Pak’s Asianamericancomics.com and the Museum of Chinese in America, in whose beautiful new building the event was held. While it was modest compared to the San Diego Comic Con International, which has become the mother ship of pop culture, the first year of the AACC was impressive in its scope. The Con was designed along three separate workshop tracks: “Reading Comics”, “Making Comics”, and the “Spotlight Track”, which featured comic book industry professionals like Pak, Khoi Phan, Larry Hama and others. Organizing the event this way acknowledges that comic books have become a force in setting trends for mainstream pop culture and in a more academic sense, as models for looking at stuff like ethnic representations in popular media. According to the program, “ You might want to think of the ‘con’ as representing not ‘convention’, but ‘conference’—or even ‘conversation.’” Hmm. Interesting.

Before exploring the panels I went to the “Artists’ Alley” which featured tables with well-known comics professionals sitting elbow-to-elbow with lesser-known self-publishing indie creators. While the program provided a blank page to collect autographs (film actor and Secret Identities managing editor Parry Shen walked right past me) I was drawn to the indie creators. One of the more interesting of these was Alitha E. Martinez, whose portfolio pages showed some of the most dynamic comic art I have seen in a long, long time. Martinez, who has penciled such mainstream titles as Iron Man, Black Panther and Fantastic Four, among others, is not a newbie but is moving into the creator-owned realm with her Manga-inspired property Yume and Ever. And therein lies the rub: among Martinez's fantastic pages were postcards emblazoned with images of her Japanese, female lead Yume, kimono hanging open, breasts front and center, sucking on a lollipop Lolita-style. Absent the context of the story I am not willing to condemn it (although that is what a postcard is, a representative image, right?) but this made me pause... and not just for the obvious reasons. This image raises all sorts of questions for me about the relationship between orientalism, sex and gender, the fetishization of Asian women vs. the potentially empowering re-framing of stereotypes... and the use of use of these images by other PoC. When answering questions about her experience at AACC on her blog Martinez writes that she was "well received" but "some of the attendees said a few insensitive things... about my looks and heritage and what I 'consider' myself. I let it roll off of my back, the art is the thing. What I am or from whense (sic) my people hail has nothing to do with my work. It's just very sad that such ignorance still exists." I only spoke with Martinez briefly--to compliment her excellent artwork-- and I didn't ask her about her postcard specifically, although it really struck me. I'd be interested to hear more about what she intends with this character, so I may follow up with her.

At the apex of "Artist's Alley" was a table set up by the group racebending.com, which was formed by Jordan White specifically to organize the boycott against the movie version of Avatar: The Last Airbender. While White talked with a reporter from MTV I was brought up to speed by an awesome Avatar fangirl, who turned out to be Nora (i.e."nojojojo"), of the great blog The Angry Black Woman. The controversy around the casting of white actors in roles that were conceived as Asian and Inuit has been covered elsewhere, so I won't repeat the details here except for three points that crystallized for me during my conversation with Nora (thanks Nora).

1) The offense stems not only from the white washed casting, but from the purposeful re- imagining of an entire SF/Fantasy universe that was based on a panoply of Asian and Inuit cultures into a European one. For PoC fans of SF/Fantasy, who often have to endure racist and ethnocentric content embedded in their fiction ::cough:: Lord of the Rings Trilogy ::cough:: Avatar was a rare opportunity to see a PoC fantasy universe realized.

2) The controversy around the movie version of Avatar is proving to be a catalyst for activism beyond the fan community. Nora told me about a colleague of hers who is not an Avatar fan, who got involved with racebending.com because the movie represents a direct assault on representations of PoC in the mainstream media.

3) To paraphrase Jordan White, "we don't just want the movie to fail, we want it to fail because fans rejected the casting." Amen.

Wandering into the rest of the Con events I was lucky to catch pioneering Asian American SF/Fantasy author William F. Wu speak. Jeff Yang, Co-Chair of the AACC and Editor in Chief of Secret Identities, interviewed Wu about his Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award nominated work, including the short story "Wong's Lost and Found Emporium", which was made into an episode of the Twilight Zone in the 80's. Wu, who was born in Missouri and raised in Kansas, described himself as a "displaced Midwestern boy." Easygoing and a natural storyteller, he discussed not only the content of Asian American representations in SF/Fantasy genres, but their lack overall. Yang summarized this situation by saying "Robot Americans are far better represented than Asian Americans (in genre fiction, despite the fact that) demographically, the future looks pretty damn Asian". Wu expanded on this point by saying that when Asian American men do appear they are usually either "tamed" (i.e. the submissive sidekick) or the villain , while Asian American women are often the "exotic" love interest of the white hero.

In advance of his AACC appearance Wu donated his vast collection of comic book art and comic books, all of which feature Asian and Asian American characters to the Fales Collection at New York University. Despite the fact that many of the portrayals are inaccurate and/or offensive Wu said he was compelled to seek them out, a habit learned during his racially isolated Midwestern childhood. And it is this ambivalent relationship with--too often--problematic portrayals that characterizes the interactions many PoC have with media: You are forced to choose between not seeing yourself represented at all, or only as a creature of the white imagination, with its fears and fantasies about you. Wu made the point that often the way Asians are represented in pulp media offers a more immediate reflection of political reality. For example, in the Buck Rogers newspaper strip of the 1940s, Buck's adversaries, who had been cat-like Aliens, became "Japanese" literally the day after Pearl Harbor. (Go back and read that again and then take a minute: The. Day. After.) Wu discussed some of the other characters who appear in his collection, which range from the ridiculous (Egg Fu, an old Wonder Woman villain/Giant Talking Egg whose evil deeds were facilitated by his prehensile Fu Manchu moustache) to the sublime (Batman Villainess/Love Interest Talia al-Ghul, daughter of the Arab Supervillain Ra's al-Ghul--whose name means "Demon's Head"-- and a mixed Chinese, European and Arab mother, which makes her a kind of orientalist combo-platter.) Torn between killing Batman and helping him escape her evil father and given to catsuits and mixed martial arts, Talia al-Ghul is the culmination of an orientalist ideal... in other words, "not a killer, just a very, very, very, hot confused (part) Chinese girl."

I ended the day at a panel called "Nerd Pop", which kicked off when Ken Chen, the Executive Director of the Asian American Writers Workshop proclaimed to the laughing crowd, "You are here because you are a part of our clan... not Asian Americans, but nerds." The rest of the panel included Ben Nugent, author of American Nerd, Derek Kirk Kim, comics creator who announced, "I'm a total jock, so I don't know what I'm doing here", and moderator Hua Hsu, an English professor at Vassar, exemplifying the high/low mix the AACC was going for. The resulting discussion veered from jokey to serious and raised questions about the connections between nerd-dom and ethnic identity. Nugent asserted that a "nerd" identity was like a racial one, in that it can't be simply changed by changing clothes, which made me arch an eyebrow. I am usually not happy with direct correspondences between race and less visible identities that cross cultures, like "nerd." But Hsu took this point in a different direction, saying that "nerd" becomes more potent when mixed with ethnicity. He argued that the term is used to de-politcize and segregate Asian Americans in a way that isn't often called out as racism. But at the same time, the panel embraced "nerd" as a descriptor and celebrated the "nerd-ification" of US culture, pointing out ruefully that, at least in New York, hipsters now dress like the 80s nerds they used to be... Except that looking like a nerd is not the same thing as being one, and "hipster", like "nerd" could as easily be applied to a PoC as a white person, which is the problem with creating these equivalences. Still, it was a fascinating and often funny discussion that raised questions for me, but didn't provide easy answers, a description I could apply to the entire Con.

It will be interesting to see the direction the AACC takes in coming years, especially in terms of the complex issues around representation, but this was a great beginning.

UPDATE: This review has been cross-posted at Racialicious

Friday, July 17, 2009

Meyerhold, M.Chekhov, Stanislavsky Workshop in Italy

Performer's Physicality in the Methods of Meyerhold, M.Chekhov, Stanislavsky

Psychological Gesture
Physical Action

international intensive practical workshop
with Russian director and teacher Sergei Ostrenko

November 5-11, 2009
Tuscany, Italy

"The programme is focused on the practical exploration of the performers psycho-physical instrument in the teachings of the Russian outstanding theatrical innovators - Vsevolod Meyerhold, Michael Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavsky. Participants will explore the principles of Biomechanics, Psychological Gesture and Physical Action, gain a deeper understanding of psycho-physical approach in contemporary actors training and its application in practical work - rehearsal process, performance and teaching. Each morning will begin with the warm-up based on the principles of Biomechanics. Participants will learn one of Meyerhold's etudes. The warm-up will help to wake up the body, imagination and to prepare for the intensive practical work during the day. The process includes intensive practical training, lectures and discussions."

Programme & registration:

Photo Gallery of the past events:

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sunday Music: Fleetwood Mac & State of the Blog

This is a video of Fleetwood Mac doing Rhiannon on Midnight Special in 1976, i.e. Stevie Nicks at her Stevie Nicks-iest. I was a little kid when this originally aired but once I started listening to music I would have cut off my arm before giving this a chance... Fleetwood Mac were anti-Punk, most often invoked as the name of everything uncool. They were so seventies (back when that was a high insult, i.e. the eighties). But I really love early Fleetwood Mac now. Some of Nicks' solo records are amazing too. It is interesting to see your own tastes change.

Anyway, this is dedicated to Beth, who also rings like a bell through the night.


There has been a definite uptick in the old hate mail lately. My recent essays on Michael Jackson's death and Marwa el-Sherbini's murder inspired some... extreme responses. I suppose that is in part because the blog is reaching a wider audience than it had previously, which is great. But I cannot help but think that these two people--Jackson and el-Sherbini-- represent something larger for the people who responded so vehemently and hatefully. I have followed the internet conversation about el-Sherbini's murder and have heard Jackson invoked bitterly, more than once, as a reason why the US mainstream media has largely ignored her murder. But I think that is an oversimplification. Jackson is a global icon and his death was bound to overshadow most other news stories. Yes, I agree that much of the Jackson coverage has been ham-fisted and sentimentalized to the point of nonsense. But, Michael Jackson notwithstanding I doubt anything could have persuaded the mainstream US news media to pay attention to the murder of a Muslim woman in Europe, even when her murder is so emblematic of the growing Orientalist and Islamophobic sentiment throughout the continent. Perhaps especially because of that. The details of her case just do not fit within the prevailing Western narrative about Islam and/or Arabs (wherein women are oppressed and helpless, men are savage and unyielding and the West represents the pinnacle of civilization). In fact, when the murder is mentioned--outside of the Arab and Muslim/mah blogosphere--it is often described as "inciting" Muslim hatred toward the West, a handy inversion of the actual dynamics of this crime, which retrofits it into the aforementioned narrative (helpless, savage, civilized, blah, blah, blah...). It is my understanding that el-Sherbini's murder received a good deal of attention in the mainstream media in Germany, where it occurred, and throughout the continent, to varying degrees, but I have no way to verify that. Still, I have read that some Europeans have viewed the Arab and Muslim response to el-Sherbini's murder as a hysterical over-reaction. It is in response to that notion that I refer to the hate mail I received when I wrote about el-Sherbini, in which her murderer was described as a "hero"--akin to Thomas Jefferson (!)-- for murdering a pregnant Muslim woman in front of her son and husband. Apparently, she was trying to "take away his freedom of speech." I wish I was exaggerating.

I have added several links to my original post to essays about el-Sherbini so if you haven't been back to the post to see them, I'd encourage you to check them out. UPDATE: My original essay on el-Sherbini's murder has been cross-posted at Racialicious.

Compared to the stabbing death of a pregnant woman, one might assume that a post about Michael Jackson would not engender such an emotional response... but one would be wrong. When I wrote about Michael Jackson I hoped I was clear about my affection for his music and how important I understood he was as an international figure, especially for people of my generation, who grew up with Off the Wall and Thriller. But appealing to that shared sense of history was not enough to soothe his more ardent fans who only heard my criticism. For these folks, despite Michael Jackson's own characterization of his actions with young boys (in the Bashir interview for e.g.), they cannot countenance any suggestion of sexual impropriety with children. And they are more than willing to both create (to my mind) fantastic excuses for his lack of adult boundaries and to demonize the children in question: both of which I find completely unacceptable. Since it was cross-posted at Racialicious Latoya moderated away the worst of them but did mention that some of the rejected comments made her sick. The bottom line for me is that, as far as Jackson is concerned, it is a moot point, because he is dead. But the Peter Pan mythology that is being so agressively constructed to retrocatively explain and excuse his behavior has a dangerous legacy in the present. This model of benevolent, ageless child-man, who is a loving peer to children instead of an adult presence, is part and parcel of the narrative people who sexually exploit children tell themselves. Giving it a global stage is dangerous. And I will not stop saying so.

I'm not complaining. I knew I was opening myself up to personal attack because I wrote from my point of view as an adult survivor of child sexual abuse. But as a result, I was also contacted both on and off-thread by other survivors who thanked me for speaking up. And that balances the other stuff. Shout out to the survivors.

As for my feelings about the turn the post-mortem conversation about Jackson has taken, Shafiqah of the great blog Possum Stew described them perfectly on the Racialicious thread when she wrote,

"I strongly question this continuing apologist approach that frames these children as scheming liars, while infantilizing the ADULT who has hurt them. Michael Jackson hurt little boys…buuuuut Michael Jackson is the one who needed the world to comfort him? It’s Michael Jackson who needed our empathy? It’s Michael Jackson whose pain was on par with or trumped that of the children he damaged? Michael Jackson who had suffered enough? Michael Jackson who needed a fucking hug? Seriously? HELL NO."

(Seriously, go read Possum Stew)

Finally, I want to acknowledge the new readers and followers who have come on the scene in the last while. Welcome. Don't be shy about posting responses and introducing yourselves. I look forward to hearing from you.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

God's Elect: Performance featuring Reverend Billy and Savi D

The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics presents:

Performance with Rev Billy and Savi D

followed by a discussion and reception

Thursday, July 16th
7:00 pm
20 Cooper Square, 5th Floor

New York, NY 10003

Reverend Billy and his Church of Life After Shopping mix street theater and grassroots activism to critique consumerism. According to his website, Reverend Billy "moved to New York City in 1994, where (he) began his career with the other sidewalk preachers on Times Square. Specializing in exorcisms of sweatshop companies, and opposing the Disneyfication of the neighborhood, he set up his portable pulpit at the door of the Mouse. Soon, 'moral soap operas,' also called 'Retail Interventions' were staged inside the chain stores, principally Disney, the GAP, Nike, and Starbucks. (He) was soon accompanied by singers, and began staging whole 'Worships' in the tradition of ritual-based interactive plays..."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Saving Muslim Women from the Opression of the Headscarf, by Killing Them

I never intended to write about the scarf/veil/hijab/niqaab. Like a lot of people who write about the Middle East and North Africa (Muslim and otherwise) I roll my eyes at the Western preoccupation with the scarf, which seems to dominate the discourse. The Islamic practice of covering seems to excite the imaginations of both Judeo-Christian/nationalist/conservatives and (largely) white/western/feminists, an unlikely alliance that occurs from time to time around representations of women (as in pornography, for example). I will admit that I do not understand this preoccupation... I am not a Muslim so I have no religious or cultural investment in covering one way or the other. For me, the scarf is just clothing. This may be because many of my Muslim neighbors in Brooklyn cover to varying degrees and I see them going about their lives, just like everyone else. When you are standing behind a veiled woman in line at the supermarket and you see her trying to keep her kids quiet with one hand while she organizes coupons with the other, the whole thing seems pretty ordinary, at least in my part of the world. As far as I can tell, I have only one neighbor who goes about fully covered, while others wear their scarves in very different styles, depending on their preferences, home countries and cultures. It is very common to see Moms with their heads covered while their little girls are bounding around in jeans and Dora the Explorer t-shirts, but there are a few little girls with their heads covered as well. Two or three summers ago I was walking down the street and a hijab-wearing 11 year old girl went whizzing past me on a Razor scooter, scarf and dress flapping, face split with a giant grin. Despite the wide range of styles, these women and girls all seem to socialize together and I have seen zero indication of the isolation and division that are often assumed to be part and parcel of the practice of covering. I know there are issues with the scarf in Islamic cultures, and it is not my intention to minimize them, none of my female Muslim friends and colleagues wear it and some have spoken against it. But my assumption is that any intra-cultural issues around the practice of covering can be addressed by the women it impacts directly, so I feel no pressing need to climb on to my white horse with my American flag clutched between my teeth.

So even when French President Sarkozy floated his wrong-headed hijab-ban I never thought I'd write about the scarf. It is annoying that so much of the conversation, not to mention the ban itself, is based on perpetuating Islamophobic and Orientalist stereotypes (even among people who should know better) but again I thought, "Not my fight."

And then Marwa Sherbini was murdered.

Sherbini was an Egyptian woman living in Germany who sued a white German man for calling her a "terrorist" last year because she wore a headscarf. Last week the man, identified as "Axel W." attacked Sherbini, who was 3 months pregnant, and stabbed her 18 times, killing her in front of her 3 year-old son and husband, who tried in vain to protect her. Incredibly, the attack took place in a German courtroom, where Axel W., Sherbini and both of their families were gathered as W. appealed the
750 euro ($1,050) fine that resulted from Sherbini's suit. In the chaos that ensued a security guard shot at Sherbini's husband when he tried to stop W from killing her because he assumed her husband was her attacker. Her brother Tarek told an Egyptian television station, "The guards thought that as long as he wasn't blond, he must be the attacker so they shot him." According to the BBC News, "German prosecutors have said the 28-year-old attacker... was driven by a deep hatred of foreigners and Muslims."

Yeah, no kidding.

So I find myself w
riting about the scarf after all. About how little it matters to me how Muslim women dress and how crazy I think it is for people who have no connection to the practice of covering to obsess over it. About how funny it is that participants in a culture in which women of means willingly and enthusiastically paralyze their facial muscles criticize the hijab/niqaab with a straight face (pun intended). And further, how such a (to me) bizarre practice as voluntary facial paralysis can be presented as "empowering" with no irony whatsoever. Who needs the Taliban?

It is easy to consider each little racist and ethnocentric test balloon floated by European governments in the last few years, like the ridiculous Italian measures to "safeguard" Italian culture by outlawing "foreign" foods or Sarkozy's misguided efforts at outlawing the veil in France, as mere blips, but Sherbini's murder reminds us of the old Orientalist and Islamophobic hatreds simmering just beneath the surface of European society.

Marwa Sherbini took advantage of the court system of her new country to defend her rights under its democratic system. These are the values and behaviors that Europeans say they want in their Arab and Muslim minorities. And she was murdered for it.

Here is a link to the BBC News article about Sherbini's murder. And here is a link to the Huffington Post's coverage of the aftermath of Sherbini's murder in Egypt (fair warning: the comment thread on the Huff article is nauseating. It takes exactly three comments for someone to mention Danny Pearl AND 9/11...)

Our friends at Muslimah Media Watch have written a great article about Marwa Sherbini's murder. Here is the link to that post, written by Sobia Ali.

Safiya has written a response to the UK Guardian article melodramatically titled "The Burqa is a Cloth Soaked in Blood" on her great blog Outlines. Here is the link to her post, "How Do You Soak Yours?"

This essay has been cross-posted at Racialicous.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tracing Grotowski's Path, Year of Grotowski in New York.

Below is the information about the final events of Tracing Grotowski's Path, Year of Grotowski in New York.

Paratheatre, Theatre of Sources, and Objective Drama
Friday, July 10, 2009 7-10 p.m.
NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Performance Studies Studio, 6th Floor
721 Broadway, New York, NY 10003
This event is free. Please arrive early, seating is limited.

Grotowski and his Legacy
A three-day event at Lincoln Center

Grotowski’s Laboratory Theatre and Theatre of Sources Period:
Film Documentation
Saturday, July 11, 2009,
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
70 Lincoln Center, W. 65th Street, New York, NY 10023

The Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards: Film
Sunday, July 12, 2009,
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
70 Lincoln Center, West 65th Street, New York, NY 10023

For further information and tickets please go to:

Thomas Richards and Mario Biagini:
Grotowski’s Legacy and the Workcenter
Monday, July 13, 2009, 6:30 – 9:30 PM
Lincoln Center Festival
Rose Building, Kaplan Penthouse, 10th Floor
70 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, NY 10023
This event is free. Please arrive early, seating is limited.



THOMAS RICHARDS and MARIO BIAGINI: "Jerzy Grotowski and the Workcenter"
Thursday, July 16, 6 pm
Italian Cultural Institute,
686 Park Avenue, NYC
RSVP 212.879.4242 ext. 367

Friday, July 3, 2009

Art Opening: Contemporary Artists from Palestine

Chic Point. Fashion for Israeli Checkpoints. Sharif Waked (2003)
Video DVD (7 Min.)

Art Opening: Contemporary Artists from Palestine
Tuesday, July 7, 2009 6:00 pm at Postmasters Gallery

Opening: July 7, 2009, 6-8pm.
Show runs July 7 - Aug 8, 2009, Tuesdays through Saturdays, 11am-6pm

Postmasters Gallery
459 West 19th Street
Between 9th and 10th Aves
New York, NY 10011
(212) 727-3323

“The Thousand and One Nights” brings together photographs, video, and paintings by six contemporary artists from Palestine whose work explores the political and social dimensions of time. While the works reflect the conditions of conflict and occupation, they are not entirely defined by those.

The works in this exhibition are inherently political, but their messages are coded and delivered with deliberate subtlety that demands the focused attention of viewers. Some explore conflicts that are timeless. Shadi Habib Allah’s animation, On-going Tale depicts the age-old conflict between man and beast that never reaches resolution. Sharif Waked’s Jericho First draws on imagery from the 8th century (CE), reflecting persistent visual symbols of power that extend through human history.

Other artists explore their relationships to older generations. In his Pères series, Taysir Batniji photographs portraits of family patriarchs that hang prominently in Gaza shops. The images are displayed honorifically, but Batniji’s photos highlight the power dynamics implied within them. Jumana Manna’s work, Familiar exemplifies a different relationship to her elders, whereby in photograph and video, the artist (an adult in her early twenties) is breastfed by her mother, depicting an image at once nurturing and discomforting.

The Artists:

Taysir Batniji (born Gaza, now Paris)
Hanna Farah-Kufer Bir’im (born Algish, now Tel Aviv, Jaffa, and Kufer Birim)
Shadi Habib Allah (born Jerusalem, now New York City)
Shuruq Harb (Ramallah)
Jumana Manna (Oslo)
Sharif Waked (born Nazareth, now Haifa)

Curators: Michael Connor and Mary Evangelista

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Cinereach Seeking Young Filmmakers for $5k Fellowship

Cinereach Seeking Young Filmmakers for $5,000 Fellowship:

Cinereach, a not-for-profit dedicated to supporting and producing artful films that depict underrepresented perspectives, cross cultural boundaries, and promote dialogue, is currently seeking applicants for its annual Reach Film Fellowship. The prestigious six-month program supports young filmmakers with grants, resources, and industry mentors who help guide their short films through all stages of production. Applications and guidelines can be found at http://www.reachfilmfellowship.com/. Four winning applicants will be awarded $5,000 and be mentored by an established filmmaker. Fellows also receive production support from sponsors, workshops, career coaching, and industry exposure. Industry judges will award an additional $5,000 to the most outstanding film of the four, which will also screen at Cinereach’s annual Reach Out event in the spring. The fellowship is open to filmmakers who completed film studies programs in 2008 or 2009. This year, self-taught filmmakers may also apply, but are advised to discuss their eligibility with Cinereach staff before submitting an application. Applicants must also be able to reside in the New York Tri-State area from August through April of 2009/2010 to meet the Fellowship requirements. Cinereach also has a large granting program for emerging and established filmmakers. There are two letter of inquiry deadlines annually for this program, June 1 and December 1. Grants range from $5,000 - $50,000 for features and documentary films in all stages of production (www.cinereach.org/grants/).