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Newest Wattis Anthology Invites Readers to Participate in Radical Listening

“Get acquainted with the envelope,” tamara suarez porras quotes Trinh T. Minh-ha in “Of Castles in Spain”—a poem anthologized in the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art’s newest publication, Why are they so afraid of the lotus? With those words, she’s invoking the importance of speaking and listening subjectively, suggesting a consideration of the physical properties to which language is bound.

The table of contents for Why are they so afraid of the lotus? is wrapped around its soft-bound cover. It’s an envelope of sorts, containing texts commissioned and selected from artists and writers like Astria Suparak, Christina Sharpe, Wendy Xu, Frantz Fanon, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and many more.

The anthology is published as a culmination of the Wattis’s year-long public program “Trinh T. Minh-ha is on our mind.” Interrupted by the pandemic, the first half of the curatorial project entailed lectures and performances, a film series (that went digital last March) and focused engagement with the works of Trinh T. Minh-ha: filmmaker, writer, composer, artist and long time professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

Trinh is perhaps best known for her 1989 documentary film Surname Viet Given Name Nam, which presents interviews with Vietnamese women on the aftermath of the war, but her artistic practice is not easily curtailed to one category, or even a list of categories. Her interdisciplinary approach is poetic and orchestral, regardless of the medium she is working with.

‘Why are they so afraid of the lotus?’ 2021. (Courtesy Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts)

“When things touch each other, that has certain results,” says Kim Nguyen, the Wattis’s curator and head of programs, who co-edited the anthology along with Jeanne Gerrity, deputy director and head of publications. “In-between spaces aren’t empty and they aren’t vacant,” she says.

Nguyen’s embrace of indeterminability is evident in the anthology itself, which takes the form of a kind of montage; a choir of voices placed in kinetic proximity. Writers, artists and poets are bound together in the pages like threads in a spider web. Authors in one section reference works written by other contributors, netting a space for shared attention and providing a transcript of collaboration.

In the filmmaker Sky Hopkina’s “The Center of Somewhere,” a meditative text on his relationship to Indigenous representation as a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and a descendent of the Pechanga Band of Luise Mission Indians, Hopkina writes, “What is urgent is what exists beyond myself and my experience.” Expanding that thought, he considers that his sense of self comes from “many threads being woven together to attempt to form and ritualize something less clear.” This sentiment, which could easily be a line from one of Trinh’s films, feels like a guiding parameter for how to read the anthology. Why are they so afraid of the lotus? makes its statement through correlated texts rather than a single given thesis.

Fred Moten considers the montage as a radical technique for putting images in dialogue with each other in his book In The Break. He invokes an idea of Trinh’s, “the multiple Oneness in Life,” that she introduces to speak to the complexity of her own identity as it is re-conferred across languages, nationalities, and social spaces.

In a 2019 talk entitled “Lovecidal,” which Trinh gave at the Wattis, she introduces the idea of “vernacular architecture,” which, she puts poetically, ‘breaks within here and there.” Vernacular architecture feels like the right name to use to describe Renee Gladman’s Paragraphs. Skeletal drawings, at once image and text, function between architecture and scribble. Each image-poem is made up of language that inhabits its physicality fully, and, if considered with Trinh’s thinking, insists on opening up a liminal space that still resists permanency. Gladman’s drawings are neither here nor there.

Trinh has written often about the diasporic experience, as a Vietnamese person living outside the country for most of her life, and how it relates to a sense of time. The feeling of displacement, of being out of context, has an eerie relevance during the pandemic, as for the past year everyone in this country was asked to make alienation routine. Public space in the Bay Area transformed dramatically. New access and new barriers punctuate the city, and both the capacities and limitations of convening digitally loom over social gatherings.

“What use is you and me together in a room?” Steffani Jamison asks, rhetorically, in her piece on Lorraine Hansberry’s “What Use are Flowers?” which expands on Hansberry’s eponymous unpublished story, in which a hermit survives the end of humanity and finds himself in the peculiar position of trying to describe the utility beauty once held to the planet’s few surviving children.

Maybe Trinh, who often poses questions without anticipating an answer, would respond with a line from the opening narration in her 1982 film Reassemblage: “I do not intend to speak about … just speak nearby.” This sentence resounds with a commitment to physical proximity, to the making of shared space. The use of “you and me together in a room,” in this case, is that it means that someone is there to listen when you speak.

This anthology is in many ways an invitation to listen. It’s an invitation to participate in a radical, engaged form of listening that takes on the labor of actively receiving others’ speech.

Still from Astria Suparak’s ‘Asian Futures Without Asians’ featuring a geisha robot in ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ 2017. (Courtesy the artist and Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts)

Distinctly Asian and Asian-American experiences are given space in Why are they so Afraid of the lotus? An editorial choice was made to place these experiences in conversation with and in proximity to people speaking from other positions. This is only fitting; Trinh often makes the point, in her work, that being decentered—for example being marginalized by a country that embraces white supremacy as a national mythology—can become a point from which to make connections and build intimacy. Being decentered allows for language to be complex. Fragmentation and plurality can constitute a site of solidarity.

To return to the envelope, the late multidisciplinary artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (whose Chronology, a series of never-before published black and white photographic works, is included in the anthology) impressed black type on the lips and folds of fifteen envelopes in her 1976 artwork Faire Part.

Like Trinh, Cha is known for emphasizing multiple meanings and estranging language by drawing attention to the role context plays in making meaning. One of the envelopes in the series is inscribed with acrobatic letters that, translated from French, spell out “the form of action is nothing less than transformation.” If reading is the action and an anthology of texts is the form, then Why are they so afraid of the lotus? is nothing less than transformative.

Copyright 2021 KQED