Astria Suparak is an artist, curator, and writer based in Oakland, California. Her cross-disciplinary projects address complex and urgent issues (like institutionalized racism, feminisms and gender, colonialism) made accessible through a popular culture lens, such as sci-fi movies, rock music, and sports.
Over the last year, Suparak’s installations, videos, multimedia presentations, and murals have been presented at institutions including MoMA, The Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and The Walker Art Center. Suparak has curated exhibitions, screenings, and performances for art institutions and festivals including The Liverpool Biennial, Museo Rufino Tamayo, MoMA PS1, Eyebeam, The Kitchen, and Expo Chicago, as well as for unconventional spaces such as roller-skating rinks, sports bars, and rock clubs.
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Dallas Taylor
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer, Farrah Rahaman, and Ted Passon.
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- Jasmine Cassell – “Touch”
The Pratt Film Series (organized by Astria Suparak, 1998 – 2000)
Aurora Picture Show (founded by Andrea Grover, 1998)
Keep it Slick: Infiltrating Capitalism with The Yes Men (curated by Astria Suparak at Miller Gallery, 2008)
Alien She (curated by Astria Suparak and Ceci Moss at Miller Gallery, 2013-2014)
Asian Futures, Without Asians (created by Astria Suparak, 2020—Ongoing)
Everything But the Burden: What White People are taking from Black Culture (written by Greg Tate, 2003)
Seedy Space Ports and Colony Planets Asian Conical Hats in Cinematic Dystopias (written by Astria Suparak, Seen Journal, 2021)
Helmet to Helmet (created by Astria Suparak and Caroline Washington for Seen Journal, 2021)
Tropicollage (created by Astria Suparak, 2021)
How Sci-Fi Films Use Asian Characters to Telegraph the Future While Also Dehumanizing Them (written by Evan Nicole Brown, Hollywood Reporter, 2021)
Episode 193: Asian Futures Without Asians (Imaginary Worlds Podcast, 2021)
bell hooks (1952-2021)
[00:00:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity, and expression, the Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens. You’re listening to Many Lumens where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes.
[00:00:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: For this episode, I’m speaking with Astria Suparak, an artist, writer, and curator based in Oakland. Suparak’s creative projects have been exhibited and performed at ICA LA, the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts and as part of the For Freedom series. Her curated exhibitions, screenings, and performances have appeared at art institutions and festivals such as the Liverpool Biennial, MoMA PS1 and Expo Chicago as well as for unconventional spaces including roller skating rinks, sports bars, and rock clubs.
Suparak also produced a visual essay on science fiction, futurity, and Asian material culture that appeared in BlackStar’s own Seen journal. In our conversation, we talk about her introduction to “Riot Grrrl” culture as a teen and the intellectual through line from her punk rock beginnings to her work now. We also discuss the relationship between her identities as both an artist and a curator and about the many projects she has worked on recently, such as Asian Futures, Without Asians and Tropic Collage. Now, for my conversation with Astria Suparak.
[00:01:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: So I want to start off asking you about where you grew up and what you thought you might become as a grownup.
[00:01:05] Astria Suparak: I grew up in Los Angeles. I didn’t leave California until I was 18 and I went to college. I mean, I was always interested in art and making stuff. And then I got a really good scholarship to go to art school. So that made the decision for me.
[00:02:10] Maori Karmael Holmes: Do you remember when you first felt an aha moment related to art?
[00:02:19] Astria Suparak: I do have a really distinct memory in preschool of painting and really digging it. So I must have been, I don’t know, four, five.
[00:02:28] Maori Karmael Holmes: In 2002, you were featured in the independent and they ran an image from your childhood journal where you had written that you wanted to someday be an artist and a scientist. I’m always really fascinated by the clarity that children have and I was curious, where did this desire come from to be both of those things?
[00:02:45] Astria Suparak: Well, I think the scientist thing I can quickly answer that was probably like because I liked animals like most kids, but I would actually read field books about different species. And then in terms of art, I was always drawing as a kid and my parents kind of dug that, so they didn’t discourage me. And by the time I was in fifth grade, I was known as the art kid and I would enter contests like the library, bookmark-drawing contest or the county fair contest.
[00:03:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: Doing a lot of research for you, I read that you made your way to Riot Grrrl culture. And I was wondering, what were you looking for and how did you find yourself in that scene?
[00:03:30] Astria Suparak: So an older friend in high school introduced me to Riot Grrrl. She took me to some music shows and some Riot Grrrl chapter meetings in San Gabriel Valley. And going to one music show is a gateway drug. Then you have access to a bunch of flyers for more shows, then you could learn about more bands, more music venues. There might be ‘zines that introduced you to different ideas and writers. And this was how we learned stuff pre-internet for printed materials. And then one of the most useful things about Riot Grrrl and punk was learning that there were alternatives to what mainstream culture showed as possibilities or options.
[00:04:14] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Is there something about you as a young person in that time that you’ve retained?
[00:04:31] Astria Suparak: I mean, it’s still within me this idea that if you’re not seeing yourself represented in your community or in popular culture, or if you’re not seeing your interests or your values reflected, one of the things you can do is to create your own version of whatever it is you need to see and that anyone can do this. You can make your own music, publications, festival, whatever creative project, even if you don’t have the right education or background or skills.
[00:04:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: I mean, the skills part is interesting. I think you do need the skills, but I guess you could learn them. You can definitely pick them up.
[00:05:00] Astria Suparak: In terms of punk music, one might say initially you do not need the skills.
[00:05:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: Fair, totally fair. Can you talk a little bit about Big Miss Moviola, which later became Joanie 4 Jackie and how you discovered it?
[00:05:15] Astria Suparak: Big Miss Moviola was an underground film network that Miranda July started in 1995. And it was this chain letter format where any “female filmmaker” could mail Miranda their video and $5, and in return you’d get a videotape back with your movie plus nine others. And then each videotape came with a booklet of letters from the filmmakers to the other people on their chain letter tape. So that’s how the project connected people across the country who wouldn’t otherwise meet, pre-internet. I first saw Miranda perform at the LA Riot Grrrl Convention in 1995, which was organized by a couple friends of mine. And then three years later when I was in New York, I invited Miranda to present selections from Big Miss Moviola at the film series that I ran at Pratt.
[00:06:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: I did want to ask you about your time curating and organizing exhibitions in public programs at Pratt. How did you get into that?
[00:06:27] Astria Suparak: So I only went to Pratt because they offered me the biggest scholarship and because it was in New York. I didn’t do a ton of research beforehand, which I do not recommend [for] people considering college. So as a result of that, I became frustrated with the school because all the different disciplines were siloed off from each other. And I wanted to see and try everything at the time. So in my sophomore year of college, I started a weekly film series as an alternative education for myself. So programming started for selfish reasons and I wanted to provide a platform for artists in politics that I believe in. So this kind of goes back to your earlier question where initially I wanted to show alternatives to sexist Hollywood movies and I did this through showing work that was experimental, work that wasn’t easily accessible to the public, and work by women, queers, and people who were outside of the United States.
[00:07:25] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I totally relate to that. I did a similar thing in undergrad, not weekly film series, but I found myself organizing concerts and conferences my freshman year when I got to Howard. And so much of it was about what I wasn’t getting in the classroom, so I totally understand.
[00:07:40] Astria Suparak: Yeah.
[00:07:45] Maori Karmael Holmes: One of our guest producers for this episode is a friend of yours, Ted Passon and he made a connection between your background and punk circles and its touring culture and your approach to your itinerant, curatorial practice. He said you were one of the first film curators to take a screening program on tour. And I was wondering if you agree with this observation or had there been other models that you looked to?
[00:08:09] Astria Suparak: Yeah, at the time there were festivals that would tour with a programmer and there were filmmakers who would tour with their own work. But I don’t think there were really, like independent curators who were touring with other programs that I can recall. But since I was coming out of, like a music scene, I was used to seeing how bands toured and organizing tours and like a DIY style. Now that I’m thinking about it, a lot of the people who were touring were white male filmmakers. And after I was touring for a bit, I also had been told by several white male filmmakers that they started touring because they saw me touring then realized that they could do it.
[00:09:09] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s fascinating. While you were in Riot Grrrl, I was in more sort of like a backpacker or I think at the time we called it Conscious hip hop. I think the learning that I had from doing work in that same way, the kind of community building, I’ve definitely took into, I think what we now call sort of like impact campaigns or social engagement. And it really is like trying to connect with people and the things that they’re into basically not thinking about demographics, but more kind of psychographics. It is something to hone and I just think it’s a really interesting skill to have, but I’m also curious what influenced you to travel with your programs. What made you say like, “This was really awesome. I should take it somewhere else.”
[00:09:58] Astria Suparak: It didn’t occur to me to tour until I was invited to tour.
[00:10:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
[00:10:03] Astria Suparak: And the very first time I was invited to do something outside of New York was with Andrea Grover at the Aurora Picture Show in Houston, Texas. She was traveling back to New York to visit her family and she made a meeting with me and then was so shocked to find out that I was a college student. And then that reminded me that I had creatively omitted that I was a student because I was so worried that people wouldn’t take me seriously, basically. And you know, this was before Google image search, before you could find out people. So people would just see your signature on email or on listservs. I wrote, director of the program because sure, and it’s like a lot of people just assumed I was a fully adult staff member.
[00:11:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: That’s amazing. I’m also wondering, I don’t know if this is something I’m projecting. So I think about the things that I created because I wanted to see them and I wanted them to be there for my own work. But along the way, I spent so much time kind of organizing that I stop making work. And I’m wondering if that is all… Do you relate to that at all?
[00:11:32] Astria Suparak: Yeah, so I trained as an artist, was always identified as an artist, identity when I was younger and then curating just became more viable or desirable from other people of me. So I started touring my spring break of senior year and then pretty consistently toured for like six years after that as an independent curator and didn’t have time to develop my own art making. Even as a curator, I was always creating work, but for years it was submerged under my curatorial identity and was often, like anonymous or collaborative or in service to other artists’ work. So it’s only been in recent years that I’ve been able to embrace that artist identity again.
[00:12:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Well, what made the space for that? I mean, I wanted to ask you that later, but let’s go now. Was it the pandemic or was this before the pandemic that you were just like, I don’t know. Do you have a big birthday? And you were like, “I’ve got to get back to making work.”
[00:12:46] Astria Suparak: It was not being employed as a full time curator anymore.
[00:12:49] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
[00:12:51] Astria Suparak: Also, having some writing opportunities or publishing opportunities that I was able to turn into more creative projects. That’s a huge thing is having opportunities that are loose where you could be more creative whereas maybe they expected like a traditional essay and then I pitched something different and they’re like, “That’s cool too.”
[00:13:08] Maori Karmael Holmes: I want to go back to just to ask one last question about touring. I was wondering what kind of venues and spaces were you on the road to? What was it like for you? Especially as a super young person?
[00:13:20] Astria Suparak: Yeah. So first all the programs I was putting together were commissioned by specific spaces. So I’d make a program specifically for that film festival or that art space. And then I would tour that same program to reach a more general public and a greater amount of people. I mean, so the tours would be seated with or based around invites with more moneyed places like universities and then I’d fill in the dates and the geographical spots with places. Like there was an abandoned mall in Louisiana. That was amazing. An elementary school in Washington, DC, a roller skating rink in Philadelphia, which was organized by our dear friend, Ted Passon. There was a sports bar in Dallas and I did a lot of shows in bars when I was in my 20s.
[00:14:39] Maori Karmael Holmes: What are some lessons, broadly, that you feel like you learned in this era?
[00:14:46] Astria Suparak: Finances, budgeting, being a self-sufficient unit like I would tour with… Initially, it was actually 16 millimeter film prints and then after 9/11 and the restrictions around luggage and carry on and all that, and with the advances with video technology, I was then touring with mini DV with backups on DVD in my own portable player. So I’d have the whole setup. I’d have like two or three programs and then I’d have clothes for three different seasons. So being able to troubleshoot, have things in multiple formats, be flexible and light on your feet.
[00:15:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: For sure.
[00:15:20] Astria Suparak: And then maybe also mentioning like funding while touring. So basically this was based in me working as an independent curator and figuring, learning about funding, figuring out what to ask for, avoiding all the places that expect you to work for free or for not a reasonable amount of money and learning to ask for a guarantee, which is more of a maybe a music world. I don’t know. It wasn’t necessarily… It was something that I had to learn basically. And when I was touring independently, I was also splitting my income with all the artists. So like universities, I keep bringing up universities, but they really had like some of the biggest fees at that time. But when I did shows at bars, it would be that split, which is typical at a bar where the bar gets 50% and you get 50%. And then I would then split that 50% with 12 other artists. So it was ridiculous in terms of not being steady income. And I didn’t have an apartment for stretches of time while I was touring, but I just wanted toss in some really specific financial stuff because sometimes that’s interesting.
[00:16:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. And something people don’t think about.
[00:16:43] Astria Suparak: Yeah. It’s not necessary to do that now. There is Vimeo. There’s a lot more options like physically bringing the work from place to place was different then. There was no other way to access some of that work.
[00:17:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:17:04] Astria Suparak: And that’s a whole can of worms just like checking out festivals. Right?
[00:17:07] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:17:08] Astria Suparak: And working online.
[00:17:11] Maori Karmael Holmes: Can you talk about how you approach your role as a curator generally? I mean, I love that you came to this. I hate the word organic because it implies there isn’t any rigor, but without sort of being trained specifically in curating, right, and coming to it out of your own interest, I would love to hear what you think about it. Because I really was interested in curating as a young person because I of people’s clothes and I really liked being in museums and gallery spaces. And then I felt like I studied art history and undergrad initially, and I had some internships, and I got really turned off to the environment. And what I felt like was a kind of posturing. It wasn’t interesting to me. And then of course I found myself back at it because I realized I could do it how I wanted, but a thousand years later. So I was just curious for, what is it about curating that is great for you?
[00:18:06] Astria Suparak: Oh, I saw curating as an extension of my art practice initially. It was a way to explore ideas, to create experiences. I see it as a platform for artists and politics that you want to support. It’s a way to introduce people to new ways of thinking sometimes.
[00:18:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: And where do you find inspiration for the shows and series that you’ve worked on? Were they 100% commissions or were there any things that you organized on your own?
[00:18:39] Astria Suparak: Oh, I mean, the commissions were loose too. I think once I was asked to curate something around the theme of water, which was not that interesting to me, but that was probably the narrowest thing. I think a lot of other places were like we want new work that we haven’t shown before at the time. So what has exhibited in that space before like not wanting to repeat that if I’m curating for like a gallery that I’m directing or something like, seeing what the overarching connections across the year are. General inspiration comes a lot from like seeing the work and making connections between work across time.
[00:19:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: So in addition to independent curatorial projects, you’ve also worked for a number of cultural institutions. And I was wondering if you find it challenging to switch from those two modes sort of like the looseness of independent curatorial projects to the constraints, but also security of a year-round position that sometimes comes with a lot of admin work.
[00:19:54] Astria Suparak: Yeah. I’m really glad that I don’t have to deal with all the bullshit at universities right now. Although, I also am adjunct teaching, so there’s that. There was something really nice in being able to explore a gallery space or to revision and try to make it feel different through different exhibitions. And I’m blurring my curator and artist experience here, but as an independent person or an exhibiting artist, being able to see what the house expertise is. If you get a chance to work with someone who’s like an incredible wood maker or that can be great as an artist to be able to learn more about something that you haven’t tried or need to delve more into for your future work as opposed to the position you’re often in where you’re getting to invest in people and give giving them the tools and building up their skills to continue to grow, and that’s more fulfilling in one way.
[00:21:04] Maori Karmael Holmes: At Carnegie Mellon, you made a big name for yourself with a lot of well regarded shows, including a retrospective of The Yes Men and a retrospective of the Riot Grrrl movement. I was wondering if you have another show under your belt, are you thinking of another big show like that for the future, or if you can talk about it.
[00:21:26] Astria Suparak: I’m not. I mean, working as an independent curator for gallery spaces is really hard because places have curators on staff already. Often they’re only working within a network of the other curators who they know about, or an equivalent venue in terms of their prestige or whatever. And for me to start to do that as an independent curator is really hard to shop an exhibition without the stability of an institution backing that time that I’m researching. I mean, if you’re lucky and you have time to research that I’m not going to actively work on an exhibition of that scale. I have a ton of ideas though. But that is quite a commitment.
[00:22:21] Maori Karmael Holmes: I noticed it came up in several interviews about you being asked to step down from a position after you curated an exhibition where you had been requested to remove the word feminist from the description. I started thinking about being in my ’20s, I worked as a teacher at this, like experimental charter school and I was totally questioning their methods every single day and they got tired of it. So they asked me to leave. I worked at an art center and I was going on and on about some social justice issue, and they also asked me to leave. It was never about my work. Right? So I’m very clear about that capacity, but I think you need this moxie when you’re in your 20s to rail against injustice and to have certain kinds of principles. But I was curious for you, if you look back on the position after the exhibition with the feminist in the description, would you do things differently now or did you feel justified in everything that happened?
[00:23:31] Astria Suparak: I mean, it boils down to, I had a bad boss and it was a bad experience. But I’m proud of the work that I did. The exhibitions and the programs were popular. There was a ton of enthusiasm for them. We had national, international reviews of the shows. So the fact that one person could make a decision despite all that evidence of success points to the flaw in the system.
[00:24:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:24:04] Astria Suparak: I mean, I think also… I don’t know if it’s the same with you, but because of those experiences, I think about how terrible organizations treat people and how they’ve frittered away all this goodwill, this energy, this new or young employees that have all this excitement and how an experience like that just really like, it’s like terrible for morale. All of this could be handled so differently. And it’s also like damaging and traumatizing to a lot of people having these horrible work situations.
[00:24:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. And it often like shifts the entire course of your life where at least like a decade sometimes too of what you feel like you can attempt. So I want to move into a bit of a section to ask you about your practice as a visual artist and wondering how you would define your practice.
[00:25:06] Astria Suparak: There is just the formats, which is something that I’m just expanding in the last year or two of installations, videos, collages. But yeah, I think there’s also kind of a through line about the kind of work that I’ve been doing as a curator and an artist, which is, I would say, it’s about identifying what’s being overlooked like bringing attention to societal problems or structural inequalities, and trying to put that into a relatable frame.
[00:25:49] Maori Karmael Holmes: And I know we talked about it a little bit more, but I would just love to ask here, what has it been like making the jump from organizing other people’s projects to putting your own out into the world? What has shifted in your relationship to the public?
[00:26:00] Astria Suparak: Yeah. I think it’s more of like returning to an earlier artist identity. I only became a curator because I became more financially viable than art making. And in terms of the shift, I’m not thinking of the audience as much as an artist than I am as a curator.
[00:26:19] Maori Karmael Holmes: What impact do you think your curatorial experience has had on your art making experience?
[00:26:26] Astria Suparak: Curating has given me useful professional tools that I can use in my art making like in terms of budgeting and contracts and being able to articulate my needs and to problem solve. Recently, a couple curators told me that working with me was way easier than most artists because I provide all my materials organized and well labeled.
[00:26:51] Maori Karmael Holmes: Facts.
[00:26:53] Astria Suparak: Label those files. And then I think also I’ve been providing more context about my work like anticipating that a curator will need to write about the work or look for a quick description. So that’s been useful.
[00:27:16] Midroll : Seen is a journal of film and visual culture focused on Black, Brown and Indigenous communities globally. Subscribe today and receive two beautifully designed issues a year, featuring essays, reviews, interviews, and more from critics, artists, and other luminaries of color, learn more at seen.blackstarfest.org.
[00:27:44] Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many Lumens. And now, back to my conversation with Astria Suparak.
I’d love to talk about your recent project, Asian futures, without Asians, which just for folks listening, who may not know this is a project which asks the question, what does it mean that so many white filmmakers envisioned futures inflected by Asian culture, but devoid of actual Asian people? So I want to ask you, Astria, how did this originate?
[00:28:13] Astria Suparak: So I like sci-fi. I watch a lot of it. And I’ve always been painfully aware of how Asians are not… How they’re either absent in or portrayed in mass media. And then I was part of a Trinh T. Minh-ha reading group at the Wattis Institute in San Francisco. We were studying her work and at the end, we were asked to propose a project for a publication. I had proposed this project in which I would be looking at how Asian culture is presented in sci-fi. I got so into the research and wrote way more like 10 times more than what could fit in the book. So I broke that off into an hour-long performance lecture and then the smaller visual essay that was included in the book. And then I’ve spun that out since to gallery installations and other videos and other projects.
[00:29:29] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I mean, what I have witnessed so far has been incredible and I feel like it is so rich that I imagine it can keep going for quite a while. You’re drawing upon cinematic motifs exploring how food, fashion, design, architecture landscape, and even in some ways, surrogate sort of Asian bodies or these anglicized names of Asian-ish names have this Asian presence, but not actual bodies in this kind of Hollywood imaginary. It made me think about Greg Tate’s anthology, Everything But the Burden, which as it relates to Black people, it’s like they want everything but the burden. I imagine it’s a similar idea for Hollywood or the world in air quotes wanting this Asian experience without the experience of being, the lived experience of being Asian in the US or Europe maybe. I did want to ask you though, what is the next phase of Asian Futures? Are you imagining a larger exhibition, a book? Is there a film?
[00:30:38] Astria Suparak: Well, the performance was intended to be presented in person, so I could feel how the audience is reacting and adjust. And I haven’t been able to do that during the pandemic. So I do have like one venue lined up for an in person. Well, actually throughout the pandemic, there is times we’ve thought we could do it in person and then it’s had to move to Zoom. But I would really like to be in the audience to see how they’re reacting because I’m performing it without hearing anybody. And then I’d like to make more involved installations with multiple screens, controlled lighting. I’d like to make another video. I’m basically looking for more resources and time to make new work. So I’ve been applying for grants and fellowships. I’d really like to do a residency at a museum or a university that has an archive in art ,architecture, armor, fashion to do more research.
[00:31:49] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. My brain is spinning. I want to help figure this out, but that’s not what we’re doing here.
[00:31:58] Astria Suparak: Amazing. I also wanted to specify that Asian in my research is not limited to East Asia as America typically thinks Asian means, but it’s inclusive of West Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, East Asia, and then also the areas that have been considered Asia or paired with or blurred with in terms of historically, like if that’s North Africa, which is part of Orientalism or Pacific Islands, which in America is often paired as like a category.
[00:32:40] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. No, thank you for saying that. We definitely have very rigorous show notes, so we will be linking to your essay in Seen and other spaces for people to explore that. But thank you for sharing that clarity. I do want to talk about your essay in Seen: Seedy Space Ports and Colony Planets, which was in Seen issue two, and beautifully expanded on one of the core tenants of this project. But I wanted to talk to you about the art making in it, in which you use collage in most of the work. I was wondering how this kind of visual sampling, and to use another sort of trend term, it’s kind of a reassemblage, but how it shows up in your process. With the visuals, are they coming to you first or are you writing first and then sourcing visuals? Are they happening simultaneously? How are the collages coming in to be?
[00:33:33] Astria Suparak: Well, first, I want to say that I loved working with the Seen team and working with Caroline Washington. So, I mean, for the project in general, maybe I could talk about that, how I’m sourcing all that material first and then go more specifically into collage.
[00:33:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: Sure.
[00:33:51] Astria Suparak: So first with the process for Asian Futures, Without Asians, just as a series. I’m watching a ton of sci-fi. I’m screen grabbing any of the Asian elements that I recognize, or I’m not sure about and I’ll research later. And then I figure out the different ways to organize the materials and see what the reoccurring elements are. And then that’s what guides my research. And that leads me to more histories and cultures to look into. And then I also connect with outside experts and cultural consultants. I have this group of maybe three dozen people that I check in to quadruple check a detail about how to pronounce something, about something that I’m not getting from my other areas or ways of researching. So that includes people who are like fashion historians, martial artists, and architects. And then the writing comes after to shape that into a structure. And then I rearrange or re-obtain the right images or clips for the final work. So that was kind of long, but with the collages, some of those collages for Seen and for some of the installations and in the presentation, some of those were open-ended designs that I’d have to alter every time I washed a new sci-fi movie or a new sci-fi TV show that had a conical hat or a red paper lantern. And then with the videos, for that, I often have this idea of what I want to do and then that every time so far has changed as I’m putting together all the materials. Do you want me to talk about Helmet to Helmet a little more? Because I could talk a little more about that. Actually, I would like to.
[00:35:54] Maori Karmael Holmes: Great.
[00:35:55] Astria Suparak: It’s called Helmet to Helmet. I don’t think I had a title for it when it was published, but there’s this like embedded timeline in the piece where it’s roughly the older sources are in the top left and then it like moves down and then over to the bottom right. So the oldest stuff are illustrations from the Philippines, from the 1700s. And then there’s images of occupying European armies wearing the Salakot which is one of the Philippine colonial hats. And then you see how the Salakot was adapted to the Pith helmet. And you see those in photos of occupying European armies in other parts of the world like in Egypt and Jordan in the 20th century. I mean, I could say something about this video Tropicollage in case that’s useful. So with the video Tropicollage, initially I was thinking of a collage gif to live on a website, which was the commission was for a digital project. But then last minute the organization said that they weren’t able to host that on their website. So then I made a looped video, which is like a more similar format and now that’s been exhibited. That was originally made for the internet and now it’s been exhibited in galleries. I’ve created like a vinyl mural to frame that video. So that’s been fun to change the format and create new settings for it.
[00:37:32] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. One of the films that you talk about, of course, that’s bedazzled… this is a quote “Bedazzled with Asian culture, but drained of actual Asian people”, end quote, is Star Wars, which you meticulously and humorously critique. And so a lot of people know that George Lucas cites Kurosawa as an influence, particularly Hidden Fortress or Seven Samurai. But I’m wondering if you see this relationship little less homage and more violently, right? Or maybe more ominous. I mean, I’m projecting onto you, but what do you think about this citation? Is it a balanced one?
[00:38:17] Astria Suparak: Yeah. Well, people know that he was heavily influenced by Japanese culture in particular, but is also referencing a lot of West Asian culture. And the fact that he, for decades, could not find a single Asian person to hire or cast is like, I think pretty damning. You’re going to use all these elements, architecture, fashion, philosophy, language, like in some of the names.
[00:38:50] Maori Karmael Holmes: And mind you, you’re in California. You know you’re not…
[00:38:54] Astria Suparak: Exactly. I was just going to say that. It’s not like he lived in a place that was entirely Finnish.
[00:39:03] Maori Karmael Holmes: Since you’ve begun this project, have any Hollywood institutions reached out to you?
[00:39:10] Astria Suparak: Well, the Hollywood Reporter did a feature article on my work. I’m not sure if that counts as an institution. Since that as well as a sci-fi podcast called Imaginary Worlds, there’s been more actors and producers who’ve been following me on social media, including the producer of the Walking Dead. There’s been some organizations, but I don’t know how formally that this reaching out from Hollywood would be considered.
[00:39:48] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. I was just curious. I mean, I imagine things are going to shift. I loved too that you started off with, I was going to ask you later, but you started off with letting us know that this came from a reading group with Trinh Minh-ha, and I don’t really have a question here. This is just sharing, but her work in bell hooks, they’re the two theorists that really changed my entire worldview. I wouldn’t even know if say they changed it as much as they like affirmed it. I had nascent thoughts as a young person and reading their work gave me a lot of permission to literally alter language, to talk about the hooks caused the gaze. I didn’t have the language for that. And so I just really love that Trinh started this for you just because she, also is so foundational to me in many ways. So I just wanted to say that. I did want to ask you though thinking about that statement, who are some of your intellectual north stars? Who shifted how you think about the world?
[00:40:50] Astria Suparak: The people that I’m looking at a lot right now are people who have moral clarity, people who can process what’s happening in the present and connected to a longer history who can clearly state their arguments. So I’ve been following a lot of historians and journalists like Nikole Hannah-Jones, Jemele Hill, Kevin Blackistone, who I got to work with recently, which was great. I mean, recently being a few years ago. And then art people like, Stephanie Syjuco, Aruna D’Souza, David Hammons. There’s also Jennifer Doyle, Margaret Middleton and Cathy Park Hong.
[00:41:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you. There’s a levity in your work in a lot of the titles. They’re very funny. And I was curious if you’ve explored comedy writing at all? Is there a feature screenplay that you attempted or that you want to attempt?
[00:41:50] Astria Suparak: I’m not known for my humor, so I am glad that you find the humor because I find them funny. I feel like… Sorry. I’m just thinking about how the humor is more obvious in this series. I think that was helped by it being a pandemic and I was just in my own bubble laughing to myself about these things. And the performance of Asian Futures, Without Asians really pushed me in a lot of ways to try new things, including like performing for an entire hour and trying to be humorous for an audience, which is, as I mentioned, really weird when you’re doing it on Zoom and you can’t hear if people are laughing.
[00:42:42] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:42:43] Astria Suparak: So I’m glad you see the humor. And no, I’ve never tried any of those formats you’ve mentioned.
[00:42:52] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay. Is there anything that you’re hoping to attempt professionally or otherwise? You have a lot of life, we hope and are there other things that you want to pursue?
[00:43:04] Astria Suparak: I mean, like being a food critic would be cool. But I’m lactose intolerant, so I can’t do that. Actually, maybe that’s more just about being able to eat for free is very appealing. Eat well for free. But in terms of art, I’m still figuring out where I fit in the contemporary art world. I’m in an exploratory mode. I’m still learning about myself, experimenting with new materials and ideas. And that’s what’s most exciting for me right now like having time to, and resources to explore. And then in the experimental film world, I’m not sure if I’m really fitting in there either. I applied to a dozen film festivals, but only the ones that were free or that gave me a waiver. And only like one festival accepted one of my works. So it feels like not a great use of my time. So I’m just figuring things out.
[00:44:13] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. No, that’s totally fair. Is there anything that you want to share that you feel like you, or maybe burning to say, and didn’t get asked?
[00:44:22] Astria Suparak: When I was younger, I was already fighting people’s assumptions that I don’t belong. And certain spaces are doing certain jobs. So it was hard for me to ask for advice at the risk of appearing incompetent, which also relates to how in the beginning of my career, I didn’t work, I didn’t collaborate with other people and I was very clear that I had put together the programs because I didn’t want people to feel… Well, because I was trying to prove myself and then I didn’t want to give people a reason to attribute my success to someone else, especially a man since the majority of other curators were men. I feel now that I’ve established myself, I feel totally different in that. I love collaborating with other people and not feeling like I have to be the absolute expert in every aspect intellectually and technically in something in order to make something new.
[00:45:23] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. Isn’t it interesting how in our society, which is like colonial and capitalists and all of these things that you take on the ways of the colonizer to protect yourself from him. And then you repeat those behaviors which is actually not how you want to actually move in the world. And there was another quote that one of the producers had wanted me to bring up, but I didn’t because I just thought it was a little too esoteric, but it was thinking about trend…referencing a kind of cultural void in sort of like white or European culture and being that spiritual morass in a way, so you feel that void with things. But I think that’s also related to… I have also, I think held things back for fear of people claiming them as their own or that I wouldn’t get credit or things like that. And that’s why I was bringing up earlier that people know often who is really doing something, but sometimes they don’t. And people do steal from you and people do take credit for your work. It’s such a fine line because you don’t want to be this person who doesn’t collaborate or who… You know what I mean? I’m assuming what you’re saying is how I also feel. It’s like, that’s actually not my natural position, but then you develop this armor so that you can exist in this world in which people do that all the time. And it’s a really awful dichotomy to exist in.
[00:46:59] Astria Suparak: Yeah, I completely agree. And those two drives or maybe egos. Especially with artists how having your name out there, having your name be associated with the creation is so core, but then also learning about more generous, collaborative, open ways of working and not always being at the center, I think is also really important now that I’ve had experiences as an artist in a group show, I think curators should get out of the way sometimes and spotlight their artists. Not naming any names.
[00:47:47] Maori Karmael Holmes: That was to me, everybody.
[00:47:57] Astria Suparak: Thank you so much for thinking of me for this.
[00:48:00] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
[00:48:01] Astria Suparak: It’s really incredible what you’ve done with this podcast. I listened to Sky’s interview a few days ago and really enjoyed that.
[00:48:08] Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, thank you so much.
[00:48:10] Astria Suparak: Well, have a good week. I look forward to the next time that we interact.
[00:48:15] Maori Karmael Holmes: Yes, absolutely.
[00:48:17] Astria Suparak: Right.
[00:48:17] Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay. Thank you so much.
[00:48:18] Maori Karmael Holmes: Bye.
[00:48:30] Maori Karmael Holmes: To find out more about Astria’s work, check out her website at astriasuparak.com. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter, @AstriaSuparak.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions, the host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes. This episode was produced by Dallas Taylor. Associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Our guest associate producer for this episode is Ted Passon. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers. Our music supervisor is David “Lil Dave” Adams. BlackStar’s music and Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil Dave. This episode features music by Jasmine Casselle.
If you like what you’ve heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcast and let us know what you think of the show.
Sending you light and see you next time.