This essay was produced as part of the inaugural Stelo + Variable West Arts Writing Residency, funded with generous support from Stelo.
I moved to what is currently recognized as the state of Oregon—a name that is an attempted colonial erasure of Bands of Chinook and Clackamas, Cowlitz, Kathlamet, Molalla, Multnomah, Tualatin Kalapuya, and Wasco peoples. The move was less of a drifting across time zones and more in fits and spurts between 2017 and 2018, first visiting my partner who moved before me for a new job, and then finally making the trek myself after my doctoral preliminary examinations. It was undoubtedly a move with privilege in which choice was involved—as much as that is possible in the unique form of United States capitalism. Outside of libraries, I visited surrounding museums and happened upon the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education where I found myself spending time with their core exhibition Discrimination and Resistance, An Oregon Primer, organized by guest curator Janice Dilg.
As the exhibition statement explains, it “chronicles the numerous ways individuals and groups have resisted and overcome discrimination through that same time period” describing the “tools of discrimination,” collected visually in the form of a wall, and “tools of resistance,” organized on tilting panels, suggesting their malleability. Critically, the permanent exhibit addressed the intersections of discrimination across race, class, gender, and sexuality, avoiding “[comparisons] or rank[ing] one group’s oppression or discrimination, but [aiming] to find the commonalities in instituting and perpetuating discrimination and the many ways we can resist and overturn discrimination to create a more egalitarian state.” Among the historical materials drawn from collections across the state, I gravitated towards the panel describing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law of many subsequent legislative initiatives designed to restrict human movement across borders.
At the time, I was contending historically with the lasting effects with this act, among others, in my dissertation research. The Immigration Act of 1924 would further limit immigration according to the US National Origins Formula. Yes, the formula—as sinister as that sounds—focused on percentages of nationality in an effort to “balance” populations according to ethnicity. If that fails to make your skin crawl, the idea of “balance” emerged from an 1890 census, and remained biased towards people of northern European descent. Acts preceding and following this moment in US history constituted what American studies scholar Lisa Lowe qualifies as performative acts, by which the nation-state creates citizenship through difference. In my research, I attempt to explore how deconstructive acts—functioning against the nation-state impulse to constitute citizenship might look like—are embodied. What Lowe describes occurs collectively on a national scale; but I was and still remain curious about the various regionally-specific deconstructive acts and what wrenches they throw into the national machine.
In conversations with numerous generous artists from Oregon, exhibition viewings, and observations with the landscape, I am attempting to understand with rather than about—from my positionality as a white cis-woman of Estonian refugees and Scottish settlers—deconstructive acts with Variable West emerges out of the 2022 Stelo + Variable West Art Writing Residency at Camp Colton. I am curious about video, performance, and interstitial forms for the ways in which they function within time, circulate (at times) beyond commodification, and convey visual lexica of movement beyond extant systems. In this essay, I center the works of artists Tannaz Farsi, Laura Medina, and garima thakur, specifically Specters: Displacement, Velocity, Acceleration (2021) in Prototypes; “Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos” (2022) in Portals at Nationale; and garima thakur’s I AM AN ALIEN (2016), available online, and Bioscope (2022), recently exhibited as part of the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s TBA Festival 2022, that I had the honor of seeing (and one that I did not) and grappling with over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic while still living in Oregon as a means of examining how artists deconstruct constitutive nationalist acts and also invite viewers.
Eugene-based artist Tannaz Farsi works with a variety of materials including found objects and steel in sculptures and installations that include and hinge upon viewers’ involvements in the works. For Variable West, I wrote about her exhibition A More Perfect Union, at Holding Contemporary in 2021, in which Farsi presented a number of contingent meditations in sculpture on diasporic identity, history, and language. Contingency proved to be both a state of being and a strategy that Farsi harnesses in her works. Words almost came together, objects leaned towards obfuscated meaning.
In more recent work for Converge45’s Portland’s Monument & Memorial Project, in an exhibition entitled Prototypes, curated by Mack McFarland for Converge45, Farsi exhibited Specters: Displacement, Velocity, Acceleration, a collection of forms that recall both metal flags and inscribed protest signs set in heavy, rusted containers. Using her own handwriting, she embedded ambiguous words as actors, such as “Invisible Pressure,” “Feet in This Land” “Arms Always in Another,” “Maximum Distance,” “SoundLess War,” “Who Are the Bad Actors?,” and into the face of the steel. The handles of the protest signs were covered with yellow, orange, white, and red high visibility reflective tape, signaling additional visual warnings, all gathered in low steel containers, as if collated for a purpose and yet still floating.
As a viewer, I knew the object form in an embodied sense. These inscribed flags were intended to be lifted into the air, accompanied by yelling and the circumnavigation of my body among others through and across public space. Seeing it in the exhibition, I could not lift it up, but instead circle around it, reading the phrases and considering their potency outside of a specific context. Rather than creating a prototype monument that fossilized a sense of Iranian heritage, or current Iranian-American living, Farsi turned to the work of Black feminist theorist Tina Campt in her configuration of a shifting future-perfect tense, creating propositions of protest for imagining a different futures to come. These symbols of protest latent with potential are theoretically carried through space by bodies of citizens, absorbing their surroundings whether environmental or ideological. As one of her inspirations, Farsi recalled Eugene’s anti-war residents that hold weekly protests, sometimes in large numbers, sometimes as lone individuals, as a means to exercise their dedication to civic responsibility.
While we might view this as politically active, could it also be seen as an equally militant gesture? Farsi seems to ask this question of herself. This vision of US citizens constantly being ready to bear arms as individual, to take up protest to “sabotage the spectacle of the untouchable government or white supremacy,” as the artist says, as a reaction waiting to happen—functions in a knee-jerk way opposed to the considerations that Farsi asks of her audiences. Instead, as Farsi relayed in a Zoom conversation earlier this summer, she asks viewers to take a moment between the bearing and the arming to steady our intention(s), as a means to determine the numerous orientations to action that can and could exist.
The subtleties reflected in the metal and inscriptions of Specters: Displacement, Velocity, Accelerationare mirrored in the intricate figures and symbols in Portland-based (now New Haven-based) Laura Camila Medina’s dreamlike video-sculpture, “Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos,” which translates in English to “Face we see, hearts we know not.” Much like Farsi, Medina involves viewers in the act of looking, as we navigate around the VR experience introduced through a headset adorned with figural faces painted on silken soft bubbles that are sculpturally-rendered in plaster niches on the sculptural TV set. The multicolored set is adorned with a butterfly and faces constructed from ceramic and polymer clay, all of which recur in the virtual world on a bodily scale. The title’s reference to the overreliance on sight and its simultaneous (dis)connection to knowledge provides an entrance into the non-binaric acts that compose Medina’s teeming, multitudinous works.
As Medina told me, the new media work references a different work, Recordar es Construir (2020), in which a garden menagerie of memories culled from Medina’s Colombian and United States upbringing unfolds as a pseudo-Disney World of references—such as clips from Britney Spears’ hit song Sometimes. The memories emerge from her personal understanding but remain entangled in the collective (un)conscious from popular television, such as telenovelas, as both nationalist project and mode of artistic expression. Caras vemos, corazones no sabemos functions as a totem to that precarious in-between space. When Medina and I last met over Zoom, she relayed that she wants to work towards more viewer interaction. The totem already invites viewers to interact with her memories—as if entering her mind—what seemed to me as the ultimate vulnerability. With this work, she continues reconstituting speculations of diasporic mythos beyond the normative binary of subject/object, the self/other, the here/there.
Medina’s inclination towards the interactive aligns with what interdisciplinary Portland-based artist, designer, and educator garima thakur calls the “multitudinous nature of reality, technology, history, and narrative” that runs through “assimilation, alienation, and collectivism.” When I first experienced her online work, I AM AN ALIEN, I was struck by the layers of frustration embedded within the circumnavigation of the online system until I realized it was the work.
The aesthetics of policies, legal language, stamps, and flags abound in the work, overwhelmingly saturated with red—a reference to the proverbial red tape of bureaucracy. Obvious indicators such as where to click to get to the next page are withheld. The screens that do come next, ask intruding questions. thakur creates interactive games that articulate the coded and bureaucratic ways in which existence is corralled by the “acts” that constitute nationalism and citizenship. As the site states, “‘I am an alien’ is a project that draws the language from personal experience and immigration visa forms like I-99 and DS-160 which marks an immigrant’s status as an ‘alien allowed to work’. Being an immigrant, I have checked thousands of form checkboxes myself physically and metaphorically. The website puts the user into the position of an alien.” It references personal memories traveling from India to the United States and working with Trinidadians and Indians in Richmond Hill to process their green card applications.
While this work dwelt upon aesthetics directly related to immigration, thakur also relayed that they had another work-in-progress that perhaps developed upon the language of national abstraction referenced in the work. However this new work is deeply embedded within socio-cultural notions of shame, present in both their upbringing and Bollywood movies, but also recognized across cultural boundaries from interviews with activists. I viewed the work through Instagram, no longer being in Oregon myself—a migration of sorts through cyberspace into another space-time. The social sculpture rotates and allows viewers to look inside, recalling proto-moving image histories in which the eye constructs the movement from stilled images set to motion. Much like Medina’s work, viewers become enveloped in the presumptions of choice and power within the US legislative landscape.
From the coastline of Connecticut, by the marshy grasses that witnessed the violent settling of southern New England colonies upon Oneida ancestral lands and the formation of documents that composed the first constitutions in the US, I conclude this essay. I live vicariously through my notes and conversations from another spacetime as I recall these works, still somehow fresh in my mind. The envelope of humidity so familiar to me on this coast now feels unknown as I remember the mossy undergrowth of the Pacific Northwest that cooled its surroundings. In coming “back east,” as many people here referred to my reversed trek, I came to another home, from point a to point b—so easily categorizable, but to me, still vastly dense with actions and motivations that characterized time and place impossible to trace. These acts of (re)constituting—plural, shifting with the constitutive parts that compose whatever whole(s) we might see—ebb and flow towards one another.