n 1956, Atsuko Tanaka donned a kimono-style garment made entirely out of colored incandescent light bulbs of different sizes and electrical cords tangled together. When displayed in galleries and exhibitions, the dress hung on its own, decorative and immobile like a sort of postmodern Christmas tree. When worn in performances, Electric Dress came to life and covered Tanaka’s body from head to toe, leaving only her face and hands exposed. The effect was the fusing of technology and flesh, transforming her into a glowing symbol of post-war Japan.
Tanaka was part of the radical artistic Gutai movement in Japan that rejected traditional art styles in favor of large-scale multi-media works that integrated technology in ways that had never been previously attempted. By breaking away from the past, Tanaka chose to re-envision Japan as the center of modernization, rapidly changing and growing as if undisturbed by war and the horrors of recent history. Electric Dress signifies a rebirth of industry and consumerism in a country that had previously suffered. During Tanaka’s performances, the complex network of pulsating lights flickered on and off; tangled wires mimicked the body’s own circuitry of nerves and veins; and her hybrid body, composed of luminous techno-skin, became emblematic of the lights of a modern Asian city.
In Electric Dress, Tanaka looks straight ahead towards an imagined Asian future.
I look to this image to theorize how this performance of Asian futurity breaks away from the techno-Orientalist stereotypes present in contemporary art and performance, as well as in science fiction literature and film. Techno-Orientalism imagines Asia as a futuristic dystopia. It dehumanizes Asian people by presenting them as robot-like technological objects in order to ease Western anxieties about being surpassed by the rise of Asia. This paranoid imagination places a Western protagonist, often as the figure of the space cowboy, at the center of the narrative and relegates Asian subjects to the background. As machines, they are suspended between life and death, marked as both super-human and sub-human, unable to materialize as fully-formed. The Western protagonist must exhibit his superiority over technology (and over race) through exploitation and control. These techno-Orientalist stereotypes make their way into popular narratives, from Blade Runner to Cloud Atlas. More recently, these tropes appear in the third season of Westworld, where scenes set in a futuristic version of Los Angeles were filmed in different locations across Singapore. This suggests that the future will be Asian, but the heroes will never be.
Asian futurism, on the other hand, recasts these technology-driven visions of the future to create speculative worlds in which Asian thinkers and artists are not exoticized as Oriental others. Instead they are at the center of narratives rather than dotting the margins. Asian futurism asks not how future imaginings of Asia and Asian identity are built from the West looking East, but instead, how they emerge from the East looking forward.
In this preoccupation with imagining a hypothetical future, we have to re-orient ourselves to see how we are situated in the present and ask the question “Where do we go from here?” While contemporary artists attempt to rework tropes of techno-Orientalism and reposition Asia in the future, we question our own position in the present and begin to feel even more disconnected from the past. There is a gap between this abstract futuristic conception of Asia, the actual experiences of Asians today, and those of our predecessors.
I return again to the image of Tanaka in Electric Dress to develop my own theory on Asian futurity as that which is inseparable from history. The presence of Tanaka’s human body in her 1956 performance of Electric Dress evoked a feeling of horror rooted in historical memory that resonates with both the audience and the performer in a way that the lone object cannot. Audience members worried about the amount of heat that emanated from the incandescent bulbs and feared that the dress would electrocute her. In a postwar context, the excessive light covering her body becomes reminiscent of the light of the atomic bombs and their devastating technological power. Tanaka even confessed to having a fleeting thought of death by electrocution when she flipped the switch on the console and turned the power on: “Is this how a death-row inmate would feel?” The fear and anxiety that came along with this sense of hope, of looking forward, suggest how intertwined the past, the present, and the future are. While we speak about Asia in the future tense, the past still tightly grips our social reality in the present.
We live in a moment where minimalism, or rather a kind of affective minimalism, is a virtue, deeply informing our lives and the ways that we build our archives looking forward; we are told by tidying expert Marie Kondo to only keep items that we have sentimental relationships with and discard items that no longer “spark joy.” In looking to the past, we might find more moments of sadness and confusion than of joy — memories that we would rather suppress and forget but that deeply inform our present moment nonetheless. The Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong noted the following upon visiting the United States in 1944: “American children hear no stories about ghosts. They spend a dime at the drugstore to buy a Superman comic book…Superman represents actual capabilities or future potential, while ghosts symbolize belief in and reverence for the accumulated past." Despite being born and raised in the United States, I never cared much for superheroes, but I very much believe in ghosts. As I continuously ask myself “What now?” and “What next?” I find myself being drawn into the past and realizing that the “actual capabilities or future potential” that Fei saw in Superman might be found instead within and through ghosts, through history.
Performances of Asian futurism are still primarily responding to place, imagining alternate realities through constructing or subverting images of landscapes like the hyper-technological Asian metropolis that Tanaka embodies in Electric Dress. When futurity is linked to place and not the lives of the people who inhabit those places, I fail to envision myself in it. Dawn Chan writes, “…the Asian American experience continues to grapple with the unease that comes with sitelessness and the ongoing threat of encountering the phrase go home.” The Asian American experience, in this sense, is lost in time as well as in space.
I have never lived or spent much time in Asia, and my status as an American citizen is one that is constantly being contested. I have never been able to locate myself anywhere within Asia nor within the United States, so I identify with the term Asian American because it encompasses everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. While my identification with the term in the present is one of ambivalence, I look through the lens of history and recognize how the term emerged not from one particular place but from a collective movement — the Black Power Movement. It is therefore necessary to parse through our vastly different experiences as racial minorities in order to recognize rather than to equate oppressions in Asian racialization’s relationship to white supremacy and anti-blackness.
Attention to intersectionality in approaching multiply-marginalized identities is not divisive but conducive to kinship. This multiplicity is irreducible and cannot be situated within one specific place or one particular time. The divisions between then/now, and here/there, highlighted by Asian futurism become blurred by movement.
An alternative approach to performing Asian futurity, I believe, relies on an acknowledgement of history and of multiplicity to build interracial solidarity with attention to the specificity of racialization. Asian futurism, after all, draws inspiration from Afrofuturism, yet there has been very little discourse amongst and between the two futuristic imaginings. David Xu Borgonjon suggests that if there’s a place for art that reflects the concrete experiences of Asians today, “it must be collective in process, focused on action, and oriented to the margins.” This art asks not only how we can develop a theoretical futurism but emphasizes how we can utilize that theory to act in envisioning a real future for real people. An orientation towards the margins allows us to decenter whiteness and consider multiply-marginalized identities in relation to each other rather than to whiteness alone.
A collaborative living archive that documents and experiences the complications and interconnectedness of Afro-Asian solidarity, like that of BUFU (By Us For Us), might be such a project that looks to history and addresses the present through collective action by constructing paths of possibility. BUFU — which was founded by a collective of queer femme Black and Asian artists/organizers — was born in 2015 out of racial solidarity and Black Lives Matter organizing and evolved into a decentralized multimedia project that aims to build solidarity between Black and Asian diasporas. Their video documentary weaves together interviews in different languages and footage from around the world to facilitate global conversations that reveal how deeply interconnected our personal histories are.
Through collecting stories about Black and Asian cultural and political relationships around the globe and sharing this living archive through public programming, BUFU engages with multiply-marginalized communities to confront history and build collective and collaborative solidarity. In Electric Dress, the future is the body and technology fusing together and becoming one. This project, on the other hand, uses the technology of documentary to center human experience and form a collective body. The future is solidarity, a shared language, a deepening of the archive. In every second of footage, there is movement.
In order to look to a future where we can really see ourselves, we need to look backwards. A theory of Asian futurity can only work towards more generative ends through an acknowledgment of history and of multiplicity, looking not at where we are situated but how we move together.
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