A few days after the election I was part of a massive and amazing event in New York that has stuck with me.
The event was called #CTRLALT, organized by The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, and it was Asian, Black and Brown artists offering vision, alternative, ways to the future. I was scheduled to offer two workshops in the realm of sci fi and social justice, but it was three days after trumpocalypse and the energy and flow of the event was subdued, tender. As was I.
There were incredible pieces and installations. The Chinatown Art Brigade set up an immersive piece on gentrification in Chinatown, particularly poignant because we were located in what was the Pearl River Market until the owners got priced out. Sheldon Scott offered a piece on blackness which involved him standing on rocks speaking truth to us in a destroyed suit. Charles Jean-Pierre constructed a black (w)hole for us to enter full of light, mirrors and doors.
Genevieve Erin O’Brien worked at the intersection of food and justice, creating a space under a staircase that whipped up blood orange cotton candy and was covered in radical commitments. Nia Keturah created a “woke machine” where participants could transfer some of their experience of racial oppression to people who had never experienced it. Christine Sun Kim had an installation exploring the art and influence of sign language – I met her at Art Dubai and was absolutely blown away by how she speaks of the body’s articulation of possible futures.
Nerds of Color created a reading nook which, I was excited to see, included Octavia’s Brood along with tons of other work I love and a stack of Eshu posters from John Jennings that I wanted to confiscate. Across from this, Chad Shomura and Yuki Sakugawa structured a corner of heart-to-hearts where there was a collective cape people could share, a tiny safe space. Down the hall Saya Woolfalk sat in a room of stunning borderless textiled gowns and walls which I want to live in, the artist greeting guests with a child in her lap.
I was housed in the Museum of Impact’s interactive installation, surrounded by black women’s ode to activism.
As people slipped past me in the space I could feel the shock and the tremble in some of them, especially brown queer people. I pulled two chairs together and sat down, and soon someone sat across from me and began to cry. We spoke briefly and honestly to each other, as strangers, about fear. We then found the fear in our bodies, and then found the resilience – the part of ourselves that knows how to recover. We ended in laughter, not over the fear, but with the fear and grief, with each other.
Across from us was a muted boxing match produced by Samson Young – the audience was silent, heightening the impact of sounds as two black men pummeled each other. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the sounds as another person, then another, sat before me. It felt honest, the impact on black skin – this is how it feels to live here.
Mostly my guests and I were quiet, or whispered to each other. I felt like Sadness in Inside Out, sitting with people and finding beauty in the truth, in the depth between us.
On the second day of the event, I held a micro-workshop with a group of middle schoolers, mostly Asian, already wrestling with the impact of white supremacy, teasing each other in asides and whispers. There was a bully amongst the kids who led the way, making the kids laugh at each other. He was doughy and smart, and I felt heartache for whatever had shaped him even as I led the other kids to vision by circling around his distractions until the ideas were compelling enough to turn his attention.
I brought my tarot deck that day and set the cards up as a way to channel the emotions in the room. As I read people, I again noticed that moving from mass engagement to very deep personal interactions was so relieving to my system.
The event has stuck with me and here’s why:
– We need depth. Right now everyone is looking to large scale urgent moves, and I understand. But what feels clearest to me is that we need to dig deeper, into ourselves and with each other, into our resolve and our vision. People need to feel and believe there is a reason to keep transforming at their deepest core level in order to withstand what is being uncovered as the truth within these manmade borders. And we need depth across experiences of oppression – not isolating ourselves in panic, but understanding that these systems want to control and devour everything that isn’t white, male and wealthy.
– We need play. While some of the pieces took themselves quite seriously and brought me to tears, I was also deeply moved by the playful offerings. Next to my chair was an installation that made art of people’s heartbeats. Watching people contort and dance to the music DJ Rekha was offering up shook something down in me – everyone wanted to gather there. Times are hard but we must be an invitation to co-create, rather than a rigid set of gates to pass through.
– We need love. After people shared their fears with me, the next words were always about love. Telling me who they loved, wondering what love could create and do in fearful times, asking the tarot for guidance around love. The tarot was clear: be more honest. We need more spaces where love begets honesty, where we can set aside our masks and projections and be kissed on our scars.
– We need adaptation. I could have proceeded with a workshop structure and had fun. But what emerged from my own need and the need of the people who came with me returned me to a place where I could even look at the future. If we can’t adapt, even our best ideas become outdated, irrelevant.
During that weekend I also got to attend Underground Railroad Game, a play cocreated by my dear friend Jen Kidwell, who also stars in it as a teacher/slave era dominatrix. It was delightfully controversial and moved me – exposing the way we try to be coy and humorous about unspeakable things.
It is of utmost importance not to normalize anything at this time – white supremacy, climate catastrophe and misogyny in office and policy are not new for any of us, but this moment allows us to see it more clearly. And it is of equal importance to be visionary about how we engage this moment, and each other. Go for intimacy, depth, creativity and relationship.
Make more art, and let it be honest.