Imagine Otherwise: Jian Neo Chen on Trans of Color Art and Activism

by | Dec 19, 2018

How can a transnational, trans of color aesthetics remake the world? How has transgender studies changed what academic publishing looks like in the digital age? And what might our social justice movements look like if we prioritized small-scale, emergent strategies as much as large-scale, revolutionary ones?

In episode 78 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews trans studies scholar Jian Neo Chen about why collaborations between artists, activists, and academics are so vital to transgender studies; how academic journals born in the digital age are reimagining what scholarship looks and reads like; and the revolutionary, worldmaking power of small-scale, community-based change for trans of color communities.

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Guest: Jian Neo Chen

Jian Neo Chen is an associate professor of queer studies in the English department at the Ohio State University. Their research focuses on transgender and queer counter-cultures in literature, visual culture, and contemporary theory.

Jian’s first book, Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement (Duke University Press, 2019), explores the displaced emergences of trans of color cultural expression and activism through performance, film/video, literature, and digital media in the second decade of the twenty-first century, following fifty years of state-managed minimal civil rights reforms and two decades of white-dominated transgender movements.

Jian’s curated transmedia projects have screened with the 6–8 Months Project, hosted by Kara Walker Studios in New York City; the New York MIX 24 Queer Experimental Film Festival; the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus; and the NYU Asian/Pacific/ American Institute.

Before academia, Jian organized a popular literacy and workplace rights program for Asian immigrant women workers in Oakland, California and produced community events and raised funds to counter intimate and state violence against LGBTQQ communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Episode Sponsor

This episode is sponsored by the MA in Critical Studies Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The goal of the MA in Critical Studies is to produce creative critical thinkers prepared to address pressing contemporary issues at the intersection of cultural production and critical theory. Program graduates develop the research, writing, and communication skills necessary for rigorously investigating the forces shaping contemporary culture with imagination, creativity, and collaboration. MA program applications are open now. For more information visit pnca.edu/criticalstudies

We chatted about

  • Jian’s new book Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement (02:36)
  • What a trans of color aesthetics brings to performance (04:57)
  • Drawing inspiration from artistic, activism, and activist work (06:29)
  • The histories and futures of transgender studies publishing (07:15)
  • Imagining otherwise (12:27)

Takeaways

Jian’s new book Trans Exploits

The book is the culmination of a five-year, six-year process of investigating and coming up with language and concepts in collaboration with many of the artists in the books in order to think through and theorize the emergencies of trans of color arts and movement building by the second decade of the 21st century through performance film, video literature, and digital media.

How academic work can be inspired by activism and art

A lot of the ways in which I started to imagine my work as a scholar had to do with how artists were creating and imagining their worlds and how community members and activists were actively participating to shaping those worlds. I think the first step in doing that is being in community with folks. It also holds me accountable and cues me in in terms of what is significant politically about what folks are doing.

The political and ethical stakes of transgender studies

Marginalized fields like queer studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; critical race and ethnic studies) have to take into account the broader political context and social and cultural context in which these marginalized fields emerge precisely because the knowledge formation is not just about ‘pure knowledge.’ It’s knowledge linked to an oppressed community.

How journal audiences have changed in the digital era

I think TSQ [Transgender Studies Quarterly] from the get-go recognized that the readership would potentially be much broader, not only because transgender studies began in connection with multiple communities and movements, but because online publishing has really changed things.

Imagining otherwise

The approach I have now to change or social justice is about relationship building and small-scale interactions that try to model different worlds. I’ve been reading a lot of adrienne maree brown’s work. In Emergent Strategy, she talks about modeling things on how different species operate together through cues that are almost instinctual—flocks of birds, mushroom life, things like that. There’s a collective sense of moving together and so the smallest movement or the smallest gesture affect the entire flock and then everyone moves together to adapt.

More from Jian

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This episode is sponsored by the MA in Critical Studies Program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art. The Critical Studies Program produces creative, critical thinkers with the research, writing, and communication skills necessary to address pressing issues at the intersection of cultural production and critical theory. MA program applications are open now. For more information on the program and the enrollment process, you can visit pnca.edu/criticalstudies.

[00:49] This is episode 78 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, and my guest today is Jian Neo Chen.

Jian is an associate professor of queer studies in the English department at The Ohio State University. Their research focuses on transgender and queer counter-cultures in literature, visual culture, and contemporary theory.

Jian’s first book, Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement (Duke University Press, 2019), explores the displaced emergences of trans of color cultural expression and activism through performance, film/video, literature, and digital media in the second decade of the twenty-first century, following fifty years of state-managed minimal civil rights reforms and two decades of white-dominated transgender movements.

Jian’s curated transmedia projects have screened with the 6–8 Months Project, hosted by Kara Walker Studios in New York City; the New York MIX 24 Queer Experimental Film Festival; the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus; and the NYU Asian/Pacific/ American Institute.

Before academia, Chen organized a popular literacy and workplace rights program for Asian immigrant women workers in Oakland, California and produced community events and raised funds to counter intimate and state violence against LGBTQQ communities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In our interview, Jian and I talk about why collaborations between artists, activists, and academics are so vital to transgender studies; how academic journals born in the digital age are reimagining what scholarship looks and reads like; and the revolutionary, worldmaking power of small-scale, community-based change for trans of color communities.

[02:20] [To Jian]: Thanks so much for being with us today.

Jian Chen: Thank you so much for having me.

Cathy: I would love to start by talking about your fabulous forthcoming book, Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement. Can you give our listeners a little bit of a sense of what that book covers and what you’re trying to accomplish with it?

Jian [02:36]: I’m excited that this very long project is finally culminating. The book is the culmination of a five-year, six-year process of investigating and coming up with language and concepts in collaboration with many of the artists in the books in order to think through and theorize the emergencies of trans of color arts and movement building by the second decade of the 21st century through performance film, video literature, and digital media.

Of course, trans people of color and the cultures that they’ve created existed long before this moment. They’ve been vital parts of transgender, queer, feminist, racial, and Indigenous justice movements and countercultures.

We have unacknowledged trailblazers like Bamby Salcedo, Janetta Johnson, Ignacio Rivera, and Emi Koyama, just to name a few folks. The list goes on and on. And of course we have movement founders like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, Stormé DeLarverie, and Tamara Ching.

[03:41] But my book suggests that it’s really only during this decade that trans of color artists and movements become visible at the tense crossings between more local subcultures and dominant regimes of visibility, exemplified by the beginnings of state and national recognition. [This is] signaled by something like Time magazine’s 2014 issue called “The Transgender Tipping Point,” which announced transgender rights as the new civil rights frontier.

In my book, I look particularly at the visionary artwork and activism of folks like Yozmit, Wu Tsang, Zavé Martohardjono, Cheang Shu Lea, Janet Mock, IRANTI-org, Tanwarin Sukkhapisit, micha cárdenas, and Jennicet Gutiérrez. They’re mostly US-based, but also transnationally based.

I provide a sense of trans of color aesthetics and political strategies against fundamentalist, cis-heteropatriarchal perceptions of the body that reduce gender to assigned binary sex and also liberal conceptions of transgender inclusion that rely on divisions between unnatural, sick, or disposable and normal, rehabilitated, or productive transgender people.

[04:57] Both fundamentalist and liberal forms of cisgender dominance continue to expand the frontiers of US white settler nationalism, colonialism, and empire. For instance, many of Zavé Martohardjono’s performances use veiling and masking to call attention to Western orientalist perceptions that racially feminize Arab, Middle Eastern, Asian, and Muslim bodies as visual spectacles to be conquered and possessed.

Drawing from their trans cultural experiences as a mixed race, trans, queer, Indonesian, Italian American with Javanese ancestry, Martohardjono uses the Indigenous, ethnic, racial, religious, and colonial hybridity of Balinese and Javanese performance to then rework veiling and masking into gender-shifting gestures that can really destabilize the white, cis, masculine gaze. They also offer stylistic and political solidarities with the gender-blending of Black and Latinx ball and house dance, and also Japanese butoh.

Cathy [06:07]: One of the things that you talk about really nicely in the book is the political intervention that working with and alongside artists and cultural producers can do, rather than just writing about them from a distanced scholarly perspective. What do you find super productive about that kind of collaborative work with and alongside and for artists, rather than just about them?

Jian [06:29]: I think my own work is so much inspired by artists and activists and community members because the way that I came into my scholarship and also activism before grad school was really just being in community with folks and really having the opportunity to participate in events.

A lot of the ways in which I started to imagine my work as a scholar had to do with how artists were creating and imagining their worlds and how community members and activists were actively participating to shaping the world. I think the first step in doing that is being in community with folks. I think that also (hopefully) also holds me accountable and also cues me in in terms of what is significant politically about what folks are doing.

Cathy [07:15]: This approach—working with and thinking critically with artists and other cultural producers—is something that you also bring to your work on the Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ) board for the academic journal. The journal itself does a lot of work foregrounding artistic production and this is quite unusual for a traditional academic journal, which tends to focus more on academic production. Why do you think that kind of community and artistic collaboration with academic scholarship is particularly productive for thinking through trans experiences and trans studies?

Jian [07:48]: TSQ is really distinctive in all the ways that you described. The journal works alongside some of the other inaugural texts, I would say, that really began to describe very broadly what it means to have something like an emergent transgender studies.

The other texts I’ll cite are linked to Susan Stryker, one of the co-founders and co-editors, alongside Paisley Currah and now Francisco Galarte. The Transgender Studies Reader, both versions of it, were collaborations between Susan Stryker and Steven Whittle [volume 1] and also Susan Stryker and Aren Aizura [volume 2]. What I really appreciated about those two different readers, which also resonates with TSQ, is that the inaugural move was very self-reflexive and careful in terms of not taking on the position of knowing the field one is trying to describe and that’s still emerging.

So the first Transgender Studies Reader talks about the 1990s moment of emergence and [transgender studies’s] overlap and also distinction from queer studies in particular. It talks about the field not just as a body of knowledge and an academic production, but talks about how—like many other marginalized feels like queer studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; critical race and ethnic studies—having to really take into account the broader political context and social and cultural context in which these marginalized fields emerge precisely because the knowledge formation is not just about pure knowledge. It’s knowledge linked to an oppressed community.

[09:14] And then the second generation [of the Transgender Studies Reader] is really important because it was like, “Okay, we’ve now talked about this inaugural moment very broadly in the first reader, and now in the second reader we’re going to talk about how we can make sure we decolonize transgender studies.”

TSQ did this too. The first issues in 2014 were actually focused on keywords. The idea there was to get folks across radically different disciplines and also social identities to remobilize terms that we might be familiar with—like temporality, abjection, or gender—and to actually defamiliarize them.

TSQ  has continued to take a very broad approach to how it curates its different issues in terms of inviting editorial board members to participate in pitching potential special issues that not only address academic audiences but, like you said, also artists, cultural workers, activists.

Cathy: It’s really a way of rethinking what an academic journal, a critical academic journal, can be in this day and age and in a field that, as you point out, is still emerging.

Jian [10:28]: Yeah. TSQ is also a journal that launched during the social media era. I think there’s something happening there where academic publication at this moment in time doesn’t have to be cordoned off and specialized in the same way such that it only circulates within academic circles.

Different pieces that are part of larger volumes are now circulating on their own, outside of these collections. With online publishing happening and the ways people now can access just one different piece, it breaks up the internal academic conversation, but it also opens up the readership much more broadly. I think TSQ from the get-go recognized that the readership would potentially be much broader, not only because transgender studies began in connection with multiple communities and movements, but because online publishing has really changed things.

Cathy: It’s certainly one of the guiding principles behind this podcast [Imagine Otherwise]: that emphasis on public scholarship and getting academic research into various communities, into different audiences, into different spaces, and then also letting those other spaces change what it means to be a scholar and do scholarship itself. It’s radically rethinking what it means to do public scholarship, as opposed to private scholarship.

Jian [11:40]: At least in my own writing, it’s changed a lot. For grad students who are just beginning to publish stuff on their own, I think there’s a way where the readership imaginary of the folks that are engaging with your work has expanded (hopefully) such that people can really imagine multiple forms of readers who are not only located in the academic institution. I think that the writing actually changes and the scholarship actually changes and the research actually changes because of that.

Cathy: So I think dovetails really nicely into my final question, which gets at the heart of why you take this approach to trans studies or why you take this approach to your work at TSQ or your work in collaboration with artists and activists and community organizations. That’s that better world that you’re working toward. What kind of world do you want?

Jian [12:27]: I’m so glad you’re asking the question because I think that the question is actually not asked that frequently.

I think at this moment, it’s difficult for me to have a big world view because right now I think have a small-scale view towards community-based change and social justice and revolution. I really do value teaching and writing and definitely the engagement with the artists and the activists and community members whom I engage with in my work. It may seem like something that has very small impact, but in fact it’s magnified because the depth of the interaction is really transformative.

The approach I have now to change or social justice is really about relationship building and small-scale interactions that try to model different worlds. Certainly I’ve been reading a lot of adrienne maree brown’s work. In Emergent Strategy, she talks about modeling things on how different species operate together through cues that are almost instinctual—flocks of birds, mushroom life, things like that. There’s a collective sense of moving together and so the smallest movement or the smallest gesture affect the entire flock and then everyone moves together to adapt. She draws actually quite a bit on Grace Lee Boggs’s work too and I’m really gravitating towards that right now.

Cathy [13:48]: Well, thank you for being with us and for sharing so many different ways that you imagine and create otherwise.

Jian: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Cathy [14:00]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]

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