Astria Suparak’s ‘Virtually Asian’ Analyzes Sci-Fi to Argue for Less Racist Futures

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Still from Astria Suparak's 'Virtually Asian,' featuring Tom Cruise in 'Minority Report.' (Courtesy the artist)

Clocking in at under three minutes, Astria Suparak’s video Virtually Asian is a fecund proof of concept for what could be an entire feature length film in the form of an illustrated essay. Made with materials clipped from an ongoing research project on the science fiction culture industry, the resulting collage creates a highly affecting argument on the erasure of Asian people from the canon.

The work is part of Berkeley Art Center’s digital exhibition The Option To..., launched while the space was closed due to the pandemic, which includes commissioned projects by Bay Area artists Kimberley Acebo Arteche, Roya Ebtehaj, Feral Fabric, Dionne Lee and Adia Millett.

Suparak’s piece is immediate and her voice, narrating the words, is melodic and compelling. The over-dubbing of her acerbic observations on blockbuster films is a compelling prelude to other iterations of her work that will appear in fragments across digital platforms.

American science fiction films are often guilty of what media theorist Wendy Chun calls “high-tech Orientalism.” The term originates in Chun’s essay “Race and/as Technology or How to Do Things to Race,” which includes a reading of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a book credited for creating the term “cyberpunk.” Looking at the crude assemblage of Asian cultures, objects, and practices casually mixed together to build the dystopian future that Gibson’s white characters inhabit, Chun writes that “high-tech Orientalism is a process of abjection—a frontier—through which the console cowboy, the properly human subject, is created.”

A still from 'Virtually Asian,' featuring a cityscape with holographic geisha on top of a skyscraper in 'Ghost In The Shell.' (Courtesy the artist)

In a similar line of thought, Suparak writes that “Asians are used as scenery in white-made media, as a shorthand to indicate a ‘multicultural’ or ‘foreign’ place. But foreign to whom? Asians have been on record as living here since at least the 1600s, before the U.S. even existed.” In Virtually Asian, this critique overdubs footage of white protagonists in science fiction films walking past holograms of Asian women.

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Racist histories feed right into an inability to imagine less racist futures. It is here that Suparak’s work intervenes, insisting on creative depictions of a future in which white American myths no longer dominate the collective imaginary.

“Many of the racist tropes that white filmmakers bolster come out of the colonialist attitude exhibited in phrases like ‘The world is your oyster,’” writes Suparak. Such sayings, she says, are emblematic of “the privilege to travel unfettered around the world and the white entitlement to pick and choose whatever catches your fancy from cultures that aren’t your own.”

In Suparak’s video essay, she emphasizes the importance of visual representation, noting that the American culture industry is just beginning to retell stories from the past that include people of color. “In order to imagine the future,” she insists, “it’s important to reimagine the past more accurately.”

Virtually Asian is just one shard of a larger research project that examines over 40 years of American science fiction cinema and television from a critical lens. The presentations of her results are diffuse: the video at Berkeley Art Center, a forthcoming ontological essay on the conical hat, troughs of materials culled from fan sites and military wikis, illustrated essays, screenshots from Bladerunner and Ghost in the Shell and a possible series of GIFs.

A still from 'Virtually Asian' featuring holographic Japanese women in 'Ghost In The Shell.' (Courtesy the artist)

The Bay Area has long represented a fantastical idea of American futurity. Whether it be as the final frontier of western expansion, the unlimited wealth of the gold rush, the progressivism of the 60s, or, as of late, the site of high-tech innovation. Upholding each of these American myths requires the erasure of certain people; it requires that one story gets told at the expense of myriad alternative histories.

At the Berkeley Art Center, the precarious nature of physical space in the Bay Area—and who has access to it—is an organizing principle for curation. Executive Director Daniel Nevers emphasizes that with a distinguished building (designed by architect Robert Ratcliff) in an incredibly expensive city, he feels it is important to redistribute that resource to local artists whenever possible. With The Option To..., Nevers wanted to give artists money and the freedom to create whatever they like so that living and making art in the Bay Area could feel, if only temporarily, a little less precarious.

There is a question, during COVID-19, of whether our digital platforms will cohere into more accessible online communities or splinter us into endlessly algorithmic pods. This becomes especially relevant as many of the changes we’ve made in the last year feel increasingly permanent. The turn to digital exhibitions, for example, seems unlikely to go away. Nevers has already planned a second The Option To... digital show, which will take place regardless of local reopening plans.

With social encounters reduced by shelter-in-place orders, the politics of digital representation grow more and more important. The recent string of hate crimes against Asian people, which are motivated by many forms of racism, are being exacerbated by digital misrepresentations. The potential for violence imbued in science fiction films that present dehumanized versions of Asian people is clearly pressing.

The less utilitarian approach to composing digital worlds, modeled by the Berkeley Art Center’s hands-off curation and suggested by the arguments in Suparak’s work, feels like a possible escape from the algorithms. Instead of a high-tech future designed to tell white American stories, instead of a pressing cohesion that insists on one national mythology, The Option To... and Virtually Asian make an argument for complex, non-rigid and diverse sequences of media that cohabitate in the present moment.

Watch ‘Virtually Asian’ online via the Berkeley Art Center. Details here.