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A new video presentation at Los Angeles’ Occidental College from Thai-American artist and curator Astria Suparak looks at how Asian characters and cultures are represented in American science fiction cinema.
In the work — part of the show Encoding Futures: Critical Imaginaries of AI at the college’s public arts space Oxy Arts — Suparak’s visual analysis interrogates how Asians are often employed as two-dimensional props whose presence is used to signify a speculative future, while the environment of many of these films leans heavily on a patchwork of Asian cityscapes, symbols, and cultural traditions, creating a gulf between how the “future” is coded and who gets meaningful character development. The result is a long-standing trend of whitewashed science fiction films where appropriation is excused as a tool for depicting diversity on screen.
Suparak’s video essay, titled Asian Futures Without Asians, exists as a database of science-fiction films that incorporate Asian culture as a shorthand to telegraph futurism while failing to develop real storylines and characters for Asian actors within these universes.
“I started off as just another viewer of sci-fi and escapist fantasy just to decompress after work, but it’s impossible, at least for me, to not notice how Asian cultures are used in this genre,” Suparak, who grew up in Los Angeles, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “When I knew I wanted to work on this project I started by watching the films that I had access to and cataloging the obvious visual markers of Asian-ness that I recognized on first watch.”
Suparak’s project compiles clips from several films and draws upon research culled from watching several more, like Flash Gordon, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, the Star Wars franchise and Blade Runner, to investigate how future societies are persistently rendered in non-diverse and non-progressive ways in visual media culture.
“This whole series of projects under the name Asian Futures Without Asians draws on over 50 years of white-made American futuristic sci-fi, so it’s absurd that in this realm of sci-fi where you can imagine anything — anything is possible — that we still have these really old, tired, stale stereotypes of Asian culture and what Asians can be,” Suparak says.
Techno-orientalism was first coined in Rutgers University Press’ 2015 book Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Edited by David S. Roh, Betsy Huang and Greta A. Niu, it investigates the phenomenon of how Asia and Asians are represented in hypo- or hyper-technological terms, “while critically examining the stereotype of Asians as both technologically advanced and intellectually primitive, in dire need of Western consciousness-raising,” per the book’s description.
According to Suparak, there’s a prevailing media trope that situates Asian cultures as “ancient and static” — think samurais, plus katana swords and other props from eras long ago — while simultaneously being used to suggest technological advancement and the impressive speed of metropolises like Tokyo and Shanghai.
“They’re not only reflecting the biases and stereotypes and prejudices of the culture, but they’re also influencing that culture back,” Suparak notes of the big-budget Hollywood movies she references. That includes 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, a live-action remake of the Japanese manga of the same name, wherein Scarlett Johansson plays a Japanese cyborg — a casting choice that drew major whitewashing criticism upon its release.
Ultimately, Asian Futures Without Asians illuminates the lopsided nature of one Hollywood genre and critiques the way media is concepted to guide audience empathy. Suparak’s video essay investigates how artificial intelligence is coded in film, and the ways in which sympathetic robots and cyborgs, who are often white, are designed as “who the audience is supposed to root for,” Suparak says, adding: “The way they’re presented is in stark contrast to how Asian robots are often dehumanized.”
Encoding Futures — which examines how artificial intelligence molds society, and how algorithms have the power to define the world to come — was co-organized by Oxy Arts with Mashinka Firunts Hakopian, Mellon professor of the practice at Occidental, and Meldia Yesayan, director of Oxy Arts. It takes a multidisciplinary approach to looking at representation, both in terms of how the future is presented and who gets to exist there.
Says Hakopian of selecting Suparak’s work for the show, “Part of the reason why it was so crucial to include this work is because it is a really remarkable media archaeology that’s looking at how Hollywood cinema has shaped popular imaginaries of AI. And so, Hollywood has played an outsized role in determining what AI looks like, sounds like, feels like within the popular imaginary. And I think Astria’s piece does an incredible job of bringing that to the fore.”
Encoding Futures: Critical Imaginaries of AI is up through Nov 19, at Oxy Arts, 4757 York Blvd, Los Angeles, oxy.edu/oxy-arts.
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