I attended the Hemispheric Institute‘s 2014 Encuentro at Concordia University in Montreal (June 21-28). I had applied to present a Passages performance there, but my proposal was not accepted. Among the program‘s performances and presentations there were only 3 presenters from Asian diasporas. Clearly this under-representation had been noted in the previous encuentros as well because one of the work groups, Performing Asian Americas, addressed this absence. However, their notion of “Asian” limited that identifier to east Asia, a very American conception.
I attended as a participant in the work group focusing on trauma and performance. In the very first work group meeting tensions around language surfaced and were mishandled by the conveners. They took for granted that there was agreement all around regarding language and translation processes before a conversation about the issues had taken place. So they attempted to silence conversation about the topic. How could we talk about trauma without addressing language?! To me, this pointed to the larger institutional problem.
While the Encuentro seemed to emphasize indigeneity as a theme, the organizers made a big point about using “all four major languages of the hemisphere” including English, French, Portugese and Spanish, clearly missing the point that these are all colonial languages. Moreover, what made a language “major” was to be questioned. Why was French one of the official languages but not, say, Chinese, given that demographically speaking, there are more Chinese speakers on the hemisphere than there are Francophones?
The language issue pointed to and was interconnected with an even more troubling misconception on the part of the organizers whose conception of the “hemi” did not seem to include diasporic people from Asia and Africa whose presence in the hemisphere dates as far back as the Europeans. There were very few participants who might have identified as hyphenated Arab, Indian, Iranian, or even Black, Chinese or Japanese. The indigenous people of the Americas too seemed to have been put in one lump homogenized group. This Euro-centrism (i.e. white) orientation on the part of the organizers and programmers gave way to disturbing inclusions and exclusions. There were derisive portrayals and references to the excluded groups in a number of the performances, e.g. Nao Busamante’s Silver and Gold which was entirely based on the worst orientalist stereotypes.
I left my work group after attending two meetings only and migrated to another group where other tensions and forms of silencing arose, also pointing to the institutionally inscribed notion of the hemisphere as not inclusive of Asian histories and connections. Some of the encounters were quite disturbing and stressful, so by the middle of the week I decided to stage a creative intervention. In the last 3 days of the event, I took to writing in chalk in public spaces, on floors, walls and streets. I wrote in Farsi a series of monologues addressed to the “Hemi”, pointing out the lost opportunities for inclusive and productive dialogues about histories of colonialisms connecting us across different past and present concerns. Scroll down for some images of these interventions. I’m really glad for having done this. Every embodied writing intervention opened space for good conversations with passersby and other Encuentro participants.
On the last day, I accidentally heard of Andrea Assaf staging an intervention in response to Busamante’s performance in the building I was going to tag. So, without pre-meditation, I joined Andrea in a very productive spontaneous collaboration. I had met Andrea in one of the Alternate Roots workshops I’d attended earlier in the week and quite liked her energy and approach. It was great to see her perform and quite exciting to perform with her. Scroll down for the video documentation. I’m hoping to collaborate with her again.
Andrea’s rich analysis of the Encuentro experience is here.
Imagined Encounters with My Other Half
Spontaneous Collaboration with Andrea Assaf