A Row of Trees
The Journal of The Sonic Art Research Unit
The visual portrayal of the past year’s events has been unavoidable with the level of mediated images reaching limits of saturation for the general public. We are enmeshed in these representations and curated social media posts, for better or worse. The heightened emotional state catalyzed by logistics of the global quarantine has resulted in increased media and creative output. We are reminded daily of what it feels like, what it sounds like, and how perceptions can appear for those living through global crises. For those of us blamed for the “Chinese virus” and for those of us targeted by conservative media coverage of the liberatory efforts of the BIPOC community, the violence has been documented but lacks the dimensions of lived experience. In some ways, this varied documentation and editorialization has run rampant in the way the pandemic has, leaving the masses in a cacophonous sea of chaos. We are both panicked and numbed by the multiple upheavals of the unfolding events.
It was unexpected. In approaching the making of pandemic scores, the exercise of articulation of my lived experience and the act of composing words on the page, I shifted from my strategy of distancing from the reality we had all been facing. We were in a world of mediated experience of social protest and constant life-threatening contagions. In other words, it had become normative for me to move through the day feeling like a wet heavy blanket covered my entire body. I felt dense and enveloped by layers of complicated emotions, constantly eager for relief. Insulation on every level from cognitive and affective operations to interpersonal communications had developed in such a way that time and existence felt slowed and blurred. I inhaled sharply and felt committed to clearing the cumulated obstructions in the creative act.
I would like to discuss my creative process and the ongoing social engagement in my 2021 work, four graphic scores and their recorded performances, collectively known as pandemic scores. These pieces were anchored to the moment and were to reach out into an isolated world to center the multidimensional nature of living through challenging times. In pandemic scores, I reflected upon the political climate, specifically the #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate campaigns beginning in 2022. The series served both as an active inquiry into the mounting numbers of hate crimes towards Asian Americans Pacific Islanders and as a signal for the dire need for reparative efforts for the survival of endangered human populations of 2020-21. While non-white bodies were making known the constant threats to their communities, all of humanity was managing multiple deadly viruses. Albeit limited and often biased, the surge of crime was covered by various media outlets and social media platforms. Storytellers from various diasporas were focused on making the assaults and deaths visible. However, I still had questions that I wanted to process through creative acts; a possible sublimation of suffering into power and a hopeful defamiliarization of the monolithic narrative of Asian American suffering. Within the AAPI communities, different community organizing efforts prioritized ways to keep their community safe. Some through community accountability and others by hiding any potential ethnic markers. In some ways, Asian American experiences lacked attention because of the continental label: What exactly is Asian anyway? For the first time ever, the question had shifted: If we are visibly marked as non-White Others and the associated with the spread of COVID-19, how do we avoid being efforts to be annihilated? This is not to say that targted Asian American murders had not made impact. Writing this article in 2022, the forty-year anniversary of the racially motivated murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin was being reflected upon as a nation the xenophobic dynamics that drove people to kill Chin still remains.
On the ground, it seemed that media exposure was merely sensational, the data neglected in news reporting, and coverage was politically unpopular to address. Unless folded into the commentary on then President Trump’s naming of the COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus”, the individual acts of violence were obscured. In March 2021, the New York Times reported:
Attacks targeting Asian-Americans — many of them women or elderly — have increased nearly 150 percent in the past year, experts testified on Thursday. Americans of Asian descent have reported being slashed across the face with a box cutter, burned by thrown chemicals, punched in the face, and shoved to the ground.
It was here that I was particularly curious about what was being lost in these mediated fronts. Visual art and media arts were well suited to the social media platforms that allowed a prolific amount of constant commentary, interpretation, and (re)presentation of the hate crime sprees now being made visible. In our homes we were tethered to screens in attempts to proximate our previous human connection. Beyond the problematic sense of ‘good’ citizenship by being plugged in and informed, could we as humans moving through space register and make sense of these forms in our own bodies and minds? With our sensorial interactions with humanity being limited, things felt askew. By decentering the mainstream gaze (social media/news outlets) by stripping its context and framed as an art experience, how would the harms and resilience of these times be represented? Another question arose from my overstimulated and brain fog rose to the surface:
Specifically, if we were to hone our senses to a single form, what would it sound like?
As a sound artist, I had been moved by the sounds of the lockdown or rather the silences, or what I like to refer to as the ‘hums of existence’. Pre-lockdown, human activity and capitalist motivations of the hustle/grind culture were celebrated and monetized. Being productive is loud. Making money is loud. Production and machines are loud. In late March of 2020, Los Angeles halted along with other international lockdown/shelter-in-place orders. The silence was initially grounding. In a world that moves with haste and a priority of discarded details. Let’s move fast and with a roar. The deafening sound of Interstate 210 outside my apartment complex felt enlivening after the Yorkshire countryside that was only punctuated by the railway and neighbors stumbling out of the historical local pub. In one summer, I was fast forwarded into East Los Angeles: Eagle Rock to be exact. Eagle Rock is well known as a thriving Philippine diasporic community. A year later, we are listening to the light hum of air conditioning and staring at the empty roads. The bustling brown skinned neighbors were invigorating as they threw parties in the courtyard, repairing cars by the curb, and kids running in diapers. Love is loud in this neighborhood and this silence lacks comfort and connection.
I felt conspicuous as I participated in livestreams of sound art concerts and noise shows. I am both inevitably too quiet and too loud. I felt unsynchronized with the sounds I was making, and visuals felt more evocative. I had often felt accustomed to the world of the aural and now I craved an exploration of the visual fields. What do soundwaves mean when we are all drowning in unnatural insular containers?
Cuban artist and activist Tania Brugera wrote:
Political art (which is not more artistic than it is political) is not comfortable because it speaks from a position of demand and because many times it is accompanied by new forms and this requires some adjustment of the spectators to guarantee that what is before them is art indeed.
We sat at home glued to screens hoping the pandemic would pass quickly. With Black and Brown bodies subjected racialized police brutality, unlawful arrests, and excused murders by “mentally ill” white supremacists, daily anxiety attacks were layered on to the silence. My Asian American and Pacific Islander kin were reporting daily attacks of microaggressions to being denied service for being carriers of the Chinese virus. Then the previously obscured news of violence directed towards Asians became more mainstream, with our elders being the most frequently victimized and unable to defend themselves. But we were locked down in our homes and our parents had to queue masked in lines just like everyone else. It was terrifying. What will be the cause of our deaths – the uncontainable viral contagion or will we be beaten to death for appearing in public?
And while I appreciated the various movements towards garnering culturally specific pride, it felt toxic and unhelpful to the very real danger of death as Asian Americans could not subtract their ethnicity and phenotypes while moving in public spaces. We did not need another Zoom event celebrating tasty cuisine and folk dances nor did we need to serve masses imagery of flag waving Brown veterans proud to die in conflict for the American empire. We were in a volatile time where being triggered by the past and present echoed each other. Will the protests be forgotten? Will this time, a pinnacle of awareness for Asian American violence, be diluted for the sake of American jingoism and simplistic national narratives?
So, in a time of isolation what could be a defamiliarizing art form to make commentary on a contemporary pattern of these racist behaviors with ephemeral optics? Returning to Brugera, I felt relieved in my anxiety about efficacy and the myth of conclusive political action through art.
So this return to political art already comes with the sadness of knowing it will be inadequately collectible and with a tragic trust in its limited effectiveness. Artists today know of some of those historical political art through documentation, missing the urgency that made it necessary, and the anger that made it be rejected and/or effective. Much political art today is more a “quote” than a political gesture.’ (Political Art Statement, 2010).
Embracing both the futility and the limitations of art framed as political validated and reasserted my view that art, in particular sound art, exists in the moment of interaction. Or rather, it cannot exist within the optics of this explosive nuances of the current historical moment. And while some may feel as though this concludes and defuses the power of the art act, I rather suggest that these “snapshots” of art with commentary can prove useful in understanding how we, humanity, are merely a momentary planetary expression. That expression serves to challenge that we are disempowered by the doing of and the making of the inconclusive political art act. Rather there is immense value in activating the social imagination beyond current events and cherishing our attachment to these passionate feelings and then releasing them. Healer/future thinker/writer/social justice activist Adrienne Maree Brown uses the term “the imagination battle”, which she describes as
a war going on for the future—it is cultural, ideological, economic, and spiritual. And as in any war, there is a front line, a place where the action is urgent, where the battle will be won or lost.” (Murmurations: Returning to the Whole, 2022).
I offer pandemic scores as an estimation, an activated movement, towards future imagining in which we are able to mark moments in time and simultaneously detach as mere offerings about possibility.
Pandemic scores is a visual map of my own psychosocial journey from the early days of March 2020’s lockdown in East Los Angeles to March 2022’s nomadic movements house-hopping the Maryland and Delaware Eastern Shore. In the month prior to the AsiaNorth 2021 exhibition, I was anxious about the lack of resolution of my work. It was hard to conclude the series with the increasing numbers of murders and assaults on Asian Americans. In the National Report by Stop AAPI Hate released December 2021, incidents had increased from 4,632 occurred in 2020 (42.5%) to 6,273 occurred in 2021(57.5%). Nothing had improved. As the installation proceeded in the Parkway Theater’s windows facing North Avenue, I was anxious. With COVID precautions in place, I appreciated the ability to still share my work with the public via the Asia North 2021 socially distanced exhibition.
Behind large glass windows my graphic scores were installed with QR codes for visitors to scan and be able to engage with the sounds of the piece. It was ironic that glass and plastic barriers had become a feature of pandemic life. To me, it felt like a metaphor to the ways these xenophobic hate crimes had happened openly, often with multiple witnesses who failed to intervene or even report: visible and yet separated and muted. How would those on the sidewalk feel inspired and connected sufficiently enough to hold their mobile phones to the pixelated codes and listen?
The project had begun to process my grief, mourning the loss of imagined ‘post-racial’ safety and disillusionment; my naïve optimism while studying abroad was focused on returning to a 2013’s America saturated with popular culture celebrating black excellence. After seven long years of postgraduate work, I had ached to return to “where I made sense”. In 2020, I was standing in the eye of storm. And it was much too quiet.
In its making, I returned to scissors and glue. Researching voraciously, I had accumulated a surplus of journal articles and images. I had planned to scrapbook them into my journal as words were slippery and pronunciation unformed. In frustration, I began ripping pages with abandon. I wanted to destroy the suffering and political commentary. As I looked down, I was mesmerized by the simplicity in the ridges and the unevenness, the broken narratives in torn photographs. This was not the first time in lockdown that abstract images and organic lines had called out to me. It was in the walks in nature I had begun to follow rock formations and creases in sand. I was jealous of the ocean for the perfection in these indented sound waves. I surveyed the torn paper and traced lines with a contact mic. I imagined sounds amplifying at microdetails. It was through the visual I found my way back to making sound.
III. Excerpts from Process Journal Entries
water over distance laying tracks permission to pause enforced rest
misalignment with the hustle, when was the last time I stopped moving
there are no bodies there are too many bodies
verbal loss “I cannot hold a thought” aching for human touch
echoes ghosts dig in the soil preheat to 350 degrees
sleep sleep sleep
memories fill in the cracks and spill
“28 October 2020
My father left the house today to pick up a couple things from the grocery story. He just won’t sit still. He reminds me that he is wearing a mask. I worry about him being immunocompromised but more so I am worried about the elder violence happening in the cities. Texting with Nerissa and wondering how she is managing her parents. All of us in the baryo cannot seem to get our parents to acknowledge there is an actual threat. Another grandparent, another aunty… we are swiping by the images of old Asian folks in hospital gowns with black eyes and respirators. They look like my parents. And yet, these images aren’t on TV for my parents to view. Believing that they are the exception Asian xenophobia as good model minorities is deeply frustrating. This is not the America they dreamed for us. Delusions must be comforting to them when we are surrounded by targeted violence and death….”
“is there going to be an end…. “
“…… new variants of discomfort and anxiety. Insulation. Explosion. I miss small talk, and everything feels urgent and bleeding all the time. “
On July 20, 2022, Stop Asian Hate released “Two Years and a Thousands of Voices: National Report”. These were the key findings.
I began this project with a misguided notion that it would be cathartic. This had been my initial drawn to developing sound work as a noise artist. I enjoyed saturation and chaos to an apex to be followed by silence. Over the years, I distilled and honed with intention. I parsed out momentary minuets of sound and pushed from my gut. I wanted to tell my stories by eliciting affect. Upon further exploration, I wanted a space for inconclusive thoughts and feelings. But not for closure but I rather desired to document my internal processes. With pandemic scores, I was particularly torn. I wanted a curative effect. I wanted to shake humanity by the shoulders and draw attention to suffering. Feeling paralyzed by the public health crises and the feelings of futility in the contemporary, in this political moment in America. It is the insufficiency that persists. I do not use this word with negative connotations. I choose the word “insufficiency” because despite my sensorial exploration through sound and vision, these articulations are momentary and are merely traces of time.
Like the xenophobic acts of harassment collected in the Stop Asian Hate report, the work is incomplete and is bounded by the time up to the AsiaNorth 2021 exhibition. If political art functions in the same way, ephemeral at best, then I hope that pandemic scores from visual to aural to catalyze curious responses and blurry emotions regarding the marginalized hostile experiences of contemporary Asian America.