Queering Contemporary Asian American Art
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Queering Contemporary Asian American Art

Laura Kina,Jan Christian Bernabe

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eBook - ePub

Queering Contemporary Asian American Art

Laura Kina,Jan Christian Bernabe

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Queering Contemporary Asian American Art takes Asian American differences as its point of departure, and brings together artists and scholars to challenge normative assumptions, essentialisms, and methodologies within Asian American art and visual culture. Taken together, these nine original artist interviews, cutting-edge visual artworks, and seven critical essays explore contemporary currents and experiences within Asian American art, including the multiple axes of race and identity, queer bodies and forms, kinship and affect, and digital identities and performances. Using the verb and critical lens of "queering" to capture transgressive cultural, social, and political engagement and practice, the contributors to this volume explore the connection points in Asian American experience and cultural production of surveillance states, decolonization and diaspora, transnational adoption, and transgender bodies and forms, as well as heteronormative respectability, the military, and war. The interdisciplinary and theoretically informed frameworks in the volume engage readers to understand global and historical processes through contemporary Asian American artistic production.

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Chapter 1
Queering Surveillance
“You Blushed”: Queering Surveillance after 9/11 in the work of Jill Magid and Hasan Elahi
Hasan Elahi (American, b. 1972)
Tracking Transience
Screenshot from trackingtransience.net
Live website, launched 2003, ongoing
Courtesy of the artist
Hasan Elahi’s Tracking Transience (plate 4, figure 1.1) is an ongoing project that appears online (trackingtransience.net). The site collects images of where Elahi is at any given moment, while also providing GPS coordinates for his recent whereabouts. The origins of the project shed light on what it might mean to surveil oneself. In a New York Times op-ed piece, he explains that he was unable to enter the United States through the Detroit Metropolitan Airport on June 19, 2002. A naturalized citizen born in Bangladesh who grew up in New York, he was interrogated about his whereabouts on the day after 9/11. Elahi writes, “Fortunately, I’m neurotic about record keeping. I had my Palm P.D.A. with me; I looked up Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001 on my calendar. I read the contents [to the official]: ‘pay storage rent at 10; meeting with Judith at 10:30; intro class from 12 to 3; advanced class from 3 to 6.’ We read about six months of my calendar appointments. I don’t think he was expecting me to have such detailed records.”1 After a series of inquiries into Elahi’s background that continued for half a year, including polygraph tests, he was cleared of suspicion.
But in preparing to travel abroad after the background check, Elahi decided to contact the FBI, willingly offering the details of his trip. “I wanted to make sure that the bureau knew that I wasn’t making any sudden moves and that I wasn’t running off somewhere. I wanted them to know where I was and what I was doing at any given time,” he writes. It is a counterintuitive move: shouldn’t one seek to challenge surveillance or, in the least, shield oneself from it? After 9/11, while some of those subjected to racial profiling sought to demonstrate their patriotism, others rejected such a mandate and challenged its racist assumptions. But it is here that the alternative offered by Tracking Transience begins. He continues:
Soon I began to e-mail the F.B.I. I started to send longer e-mails, with pictures, and then with links to Web sites I made. I wrote some clunky code for my phone back in 2003 and turned it into a tracking device.
My thinking was something like, “You want to watch me? Fine. But I can watch myself better than you can, and I can get a level of detail that you will never have.”
In the process of compiling data about myself and supplying it to the F.B.I., I started thinking about what intelligence agents might not know about me. I created a list of every flight I’ve ever been on, since birth. For the more recent flights, I noted the exact flight numbers, recorded in my frequent flier accounts, and also photographs of the meals that I ate on each flight, as well as photos of each knife provided by each airline on each flight.2
Grid upon grid, image after image—it appears as if very little of Elahi’s life in the last decade has not been subject to documentation, and he indicates that the server logs show visitors to the site include the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Executive Office of the President.3
It is important to recognize what Elahi accomplishes in using a tactic of exposure and revelation through self-surveillance. On one hand, the Transience website is a polyglot assortment of images that are hard to organize and seem to lack coherence. It is, as Elahi puts it, “deliberately user-unfriendly. A lot of work is required to thread together the thousands of available points of information. By putting everything about me out there, I am simultaneously telling everything and nothing about my life. Despite the barrage of information about me that is publicly available, I live a surprisingly private and anonymous life.”4 In doing so, he actually thwarts the objective of surveillance: to organize a profile of a subject/suspect. But he thwarts it not by running away, by seeking privacy from those who would surveil him, but by running toward the camera, arms wide open, offering himself and his whereabouts to whomever cares to inquire or log on. He shows the most intimate details of his life—the toilets he uses, the meals he eats, the beds he sleeps in—such that we get lost in his life. We don’t obtain knowledge about him; instead, we very nearly come to live with him.
By staging what is in many ways an inappropriate survey of his life, Elahi’s art sets up an alternative critical response to the conventional wisdom that privacy is the best way to resist surveillance. It is an alternative whose significance arrives through a queer reading, if we understand queer to refer to what Mel Chen calls “the social and cultural formations of ‘improper affiliation,’ so that queerness might well describe an array of subjectivities, intimacies, beings, and spaces located outside of the heteronormative.”5 The discomfiting intimacy of Elahi’s work precisely constitutes an “improper affiliation” between the surveiller and the surveilled. In this essay, I argue that a queer reading of both Elahi’s and Jill Magid’s art charts forms of biopolitical intimacy that effectively seduce the surveiller such that his (the pronoun is used instructively) authority is compromised. By constructing an improper affiliation grounded in intimacy and desire rather than empirical data, these artists point to the limits of the purportedly objective comprehension of the surveilled subject/suspect.
Further raising the stakes of this argument, I suggest that Magid and Elahi enable a queer Asian Americanist critique of surveillance. Kandice Chuh argues for Asian American studies as a “subjectless discourse” insofar as it does not have a normative or essential subject, given the heterogeneity inherent to the category.6 Indeed, what is perhaps most striking about Tracking Transience is that Elahi’s body never appears in the surfeit of images. The images are literally subjectless and yet together compose something like a corpus, or body, of details orienting us toward Elahi’s whereabouts and doings.
To draw attention to intimacy is already to disrupt the category of the subject/suspect. While surveillance may assume the subject to be a suspect, I contend that insofar as it is a category organized according to the protocols of a heteronormative biopolitics, the subject itself is suspect. Rather than reproduce the logic of subjectification that locates meaning in individuated subjects/suspects, the focus on intimacy calls for an intersubjective analysis. Thus, it hardly matters whether Elahi, Magid, I, or you identify as queer or Asian American. It is the intersubjective desire—the desire that exceeds the subject of heteronormative biopolitics, the desire that draws me to Elahi and Magid just as they are drawn to systems of surveillance—that enacts the subjectlessness of queer Asian Americanist critique. It is the intimate and affective relations across bodies and texts that deliver a robust critique of surveillance.
While Steve Mann’s “sousveillance” project—which attempts to surveil the surveiller, often literally using another camera to record the surveillance and closed circuit cameras in order “to empower individuals in 
 their encounters with organizations”7—has served as the “prevailing artistic response to surveillance,”8 Magid and Elahi do not seek to take on such roles. Kirsty Robertson suggests that many of those working with sousveillance as a tactic have a “relative privilege” that potentially adheres to “an invisibly gendered virtualization of the omniscient male gaze.”9 Mann himself has admitted that “universal surveillance/sousveillance may, in the end, only serve the ends of the existing dominant power structure”—and this is especially true if the response results in the construction of a resistant subject.10 To construct resistance along the terms of the subject—again, constituted through what I will claim has its foundations in heteronormative biopolitical surveillance—is to remain within the logic of these dominant structures.
Rather than aspire to become surveillers of their own vis-à-vis Mann, Magid and Elahi inhabit the role of the surveilled, drawing attention to themselves as subjects of surveillance after 9/11. But in doing so, it is not as if they simply succumb to the demonstrably inescapable force of biopolitical surveillance. As Magid writes to a surveiller with whom she cultivates a romantic intimacy, “I did not critique your system; I made love to it. You blushed.”11 If sousveillance functions as a critique that unwittingly reinforces the very terms of surveillance, its very power, then intimacy arrives as a queer relation to power. To be clear: the power is not so much in the surveillance itself, but in the form that enables the surv...


  1. Cover
  2. Title Page
  3. Copyright
  4. Dedication
  5. Contents
  6. Foreword
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. Introduction: For the Love of Unicorns: Queering Contemporary Asian American Art
  9. Chapter 1 Queering Surveillance
  10. Chapter 2 Queering Time
  11. Chapter 3 Queering Affect
  12. Chapter 4 Queering Methodology
  13. Chapter 5 Queering Subjectivity
  14. Chapter 6 Queering Mixed Race
  15. Chapter 7 Queering Asian America
  16. Afterword: To Be Queer Being to Queer It 

  17. Notes
  18. Bibliography
  19. About the Contributors
  20. Index