I’m lying on my couch, wrapped in a pink fleece blanket, wondering what would happen if the austerity of smash-the-state revolution were a little bit more like the gentleness of coming home.
– Trisha LOW, “From Within the Fog”
Being impossible in the current juncture to easily plan the future ‘regular’ workings of our precarious art labour existences (e.g., engaging in the cycle of funding applications, project proposals, production and outputs, sharing and distribution, then all over again), it has honestly felt in some ways absurd to be——as I have titled the working document for an application I am currently writing: ‘ApplyingforRevolution.doc’. But the recently published lyrical essay by Low somehow brings us all from the confines of our localities and homes and couches into the reality of a kind of revolution that we rather unknowingly ran smashing into, and now has invisibly and ‘particulate-ly’ come back to us. If we are lucky enough to be able to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, then indeed, Low’s description is not so far from reality——the comforts of domesticity, yet where everything seems to be falling apart.
Revolution is in many ways an overwrought term. A historical dissection by Hannah Arendt actually reveals its astronomical scale, literally by way of Copernicus’ usage in De revolutionibus Orbium coelestium as “the regular, lawfully revolving motion of the stars, which, since it was known to be beyond the influence of man and hence irresistible, was certainly characterised neither by newness or violence.”1 The irony by which revolution has come to connote violent new beginnings in the modern sense asks us to reconsider it as not simply a breakdown of the old regime, but the repeated restoration and preservation of a certain order of human affairs on earth. Is this not more akin to something like the circular temporality of annual growth cycles, or even daily life routines?
It is everyday life that has been turned upside-down, but to be honest, my own experience of the last months is not far from the years-long precarity of being an independent artist and freelance worker——meaning, I have been prepared well. I work from my home/studio, so not only am I spatially equipped to carry on as I had before, but also that modes of flexibility and resilience have been programmed into the practice, like coping with an unstable income or balancing between the work I would like to do as an artist and understanding the services that I can offer to others both as a way to contribute to society but also to sustain myself. So maybe in a mild, from my sofa kind of way, I am doing okay, but the aporetic complexities and ethical quandaries within these processes mean that things are hardly ‘balanced’.
Last year was difficult. While my work has been attuned to social engagement and thinking through the micropolitics of our practices, the eruption of Hong Kong’s so-called ‘2019 Summer of Discontent’ tore me apart in many ways, almost like the riotous visions of revolution that most people talk about. The months-long resistance against the anti-extradition law amendment bill and brutalities of the Hong Kong police force stretched every line of relation taut: between citizens and the State; amidst distrust and polarisation, between each of us and those around us; and between me and my own practice. The experience was somewhat like a one-after-another rupturing and new horizon befitting the Copernican revolution within the revolution, and now that that struggle has (unfortunately) shifted, I am left to sit calmly from my couch while in self-isolation and ‘apply for revolution’. This is not meant cynically at all, because Trisha Low’s words, and the happenstance discovery of other politically conscientious Asian American writers like Cathy Park Hong, Ocean Vuong and Andrea Long Chu (the latter perhaps less Asian identifying but anyway…), have come to me while sitting on the couch, and it dawned upon me that there would never be a better time than now for me to begin a certain revolution from this very sofa (no need for fleece in Hong Kong, but currently surrounded by books, the loose leaves of half-made books and mosquito bite tonic).
To ‘apply for revolution’ is a personal promise. It begins with the ongoing struggle between theory and praxis within socially engaged art, whereby influences and certain resistances to the continental philosophy of mostly white male, European thinkers led me to community-based practice and the experiment of a collaboratively run project space in Beijing (HomeShop, 2008-2013). The splintered yet determinedly independent practices that grew from there still insist upon radical politics, open platforms for participation, and refining attitudes towards the kinds of agency that art can bring to others. That is why they must be written.
I still believe in this agency of sensibilities and in the value of art within everyday life, even where I may fear that the painstaking fruits of my labour do little to relieve real and situated problems of the world. So where, as an organiser, independent publisher and artist I have negotiated via networks and facilitations the words of many, many others, maybe now is the time to return to the den of my own drawing board and attempt to collate the last years of running headlong into a pandemic period meditation.
As mentioned above, this sofa revolution has been partially inspired by the work of a young generation of politically engaged Asian American writers that are tempting me to curiously step back towards a metaphorical place of my childhood——old issues…the places and people we all emigrated from. This is a stepping back in the sense of interiority, the folding in of those orbits, of realising, as another spy calls it, that even in being in place, we are, “‘remaining foreigner’, foreigner as a condition, like a pilgrim but not as; foreigner in the worlds, foreigner to oneself——our many selves (no-self)”.
I was raised in Dallas, Texas, growing up at a time when the possibility of affirming one’s one voice via public, Asian American role models was virtually non-existent. There was one person I could name——television news anchor Connie Chung, the only Asian face on public television. Her presence, as a generic non-presence in racial identity, can be told via a particular incident from my childhood. In elementary school, something called ‘Role Model Day’ was announced, calling us to write letters to those whose work and careers we admired and to ask them what food they liked to eat——quite a literal pruning of a young child’s ambitions via a ‘you are what you eat’ ideology. I wrote to Connie Chung, excited to think about what food a famous person eats, but was extremely disappointed to never receive a reply. Famous people probably don’t have time to eat, much less write letters to kids. But the school assignment not completed, I had to come up with a dish suiting my role model’s palate to share with the rest of the class. My mother, less famous than Connie Chung but just as hard a worker, came up with…EGG ROLLS! (*called ‘春捲 spring rolls’ in other parts of the USA) The most stereotypically Chinese food that real Chinese people (almost) never eat, but exactly that which working class Chinese people love to serve to other Americans. I think I was even aware of the irony at the time: “Ma, Connie Chung would never eat egg rolls!” This was a child’s proto-realization for the multifaceted aspects of performativity in race that are complicated by our economic status as part of the servicing, working class in America.
Months later, a typed letter from Connie Chung came in the mail. Its two-sentence diplomatic response revealed that the second woman to co-anchor a major US news network’s national weekday broadcast likes to eat, simply, ‘home cooking’. Such an unspecific and anticlimactic reply, but one that speaks multitudes to certain answers I could not find growing up in 80s-90s Texas. What a pity, because at least Wikipedia can tell me now that she eats kosher.
Unfortunately, I think my mother made the egg rolls with pork. But, in sharing these little pasts and insides——in trying to tell you a story again——is perhaps where the revolution comes round.
1 Hannah ARENDT, On Revolution (London: Penguin Books, 1963, 1965) 42.