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SO! Amplifies: Immigrants Wake America Podcast and the Work of Engaged Digital Humanities

SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Conceptualized at a time of rampant increase in anti-immigrant violence, Immigrants Wake America is a creative response to the growing bias and violence against immigrant women in the U.S., as seen in the Atlanta shootings, the rise in hate crimes since the onset of Covid-19, and the US-Mexico border crisis. We believe that storytelling allows us to find similarities and differences between ourselves and others, offering a humanizing counterpart to harmful media narratives. The podcast creates a living archive of stories not yet heard, serving as an audio intervention into how immigrant women’s (hi)stories are narrated and passed on.

Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side. Image by Flickr User Cliff Dix (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Immigrants Wake America is a public humanities, community-engaged project of digital storytelling through podcasts, in partnership with the Tenement Museum in New York. It features storytellers who share their family stories about migration and the centrality of women in their life histories. These storytellers have submitted stories to the Tenement Museum’s digital archive Your Story, Our Story (YSOS),

Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum, focuses on immigration and immigrants to “foster a society that embraces and values the role of immigration in the evolving American identity.” YSOS cofounded by Annie Polland and Kathryn Lloyd, is a digital archive that houses stories associated with immigration, migration, and cultural identity. Some of the storytellers are first generation immigrants, while others are descendants of immigrants, born and raised in the US; their great-grandparents or grandparents migrated to the US ages ago. Through YSOS, the Tenement Museum invites people across the country to share their stories in the online digital storytelling exhibit. Each story reveals one individual’s experience. Together, the stories help us see how the unique histories shape the nation, and the patterns that bind us together.

screencap of Your Story Our Story homepage

Through exploring and curating stories from Your Story Our Story, we facilitate conversations that supplement and expand it. This makes possible the conception of an archive that is both dynamic and collaborative. Such an archive resists the colonization and appropriation of lives and narratives of our storytellers. We navigate through the ethical conundrums that one might structurally and personally face in this collaborative endeavor. In our engagement with the archives at the Tenement Museum, we believe that our podcasting project really opens up the possibilities for an expansion of the archive.

We released our first episode, the Introductory Episode on January 15th, 2022, and have since been consistently releasing one episode per month.

While our podcast does not claim to retrieve or lay out these microhistories in their entirety, at an early stage of its development, we came to realize the potential that the form of the podcast itself offers for a different kind of storytelling. In our podcast, we treat stories as primary documents instead of marginalia. Michelle Caswell (2014) uses the term “symbolic annihilation” to describe the absence or misrepresentation of marginalized communities in archives. She advocates the powerful forces of community archives in countering “symbolic annihilation.” In thinking about archives in The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault is concerned with “the density of discursive practices” wherein he observes “systems that establish statements as events and things (145)” This system of statements (as events or things) is what contributes to the law of what can be said. Processes of digital communal archiving such as those done by South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA) or the Tenement Museum attempt to extend or expand the systematic possibility of events and things. Caswell and her colleagues have demonstrated the importance and success of the SAADA project. They have also pointed to the impossibility of representation in a traditional archive which is built on violence committed on colonized and enslaved bodies, also eloquently pointed out by Saidiya Hartman’s scholarship.

Through our experience we’ve learnt that podcasts can serve as a transgressive-dynamic expansion of digital archiving, given their unique ability to cut across racial and gendered lines of preconceived sonic notions and their potential to expand the current techniques and media of digital archiving. We map this formal potential of the podcast in the way it intersects with digital archiving in the following ways:

First, narratorial voice.

We wanted our project to act as an intervention in the way in which immigrant women’s (hi)stories are consumed and passed on. We wanted to provide counter narratives. It was essential that the storytellers share their stories in their own voices, literally! The audio medium allows us to produce a space for listening to voices that are otherwise marginalized and/or demonized. 

–Le Li and Shruti Jain

Among the several unique and inspiring stories of resilience that the Tenement Museum houses, one such is a story by an immigrant case manager at the American Civic Association in Binghamton, Goretti Mugambwa. The museum and our podcast make it possible for her story to be narrated by herself in her voice. With her experience of working with the refugee and immigrant community she also does not just remain an individual voice, but acts to further a collective assertion.

Next, sonic variations.

Our storytellers’ voices are not just “characteristics” of the story but are an essential part of the story itself. We believe that each immigrant and their descendent brings to the story their unique tonal texture. This diversity destabilizes what immigrants and their descendants are expected to sound like. The sounds we add in the editing process are minimal. We try not to impose emotional cues and responses upon our listeners. 

–Shruti Jain and Le Li

The multiplicity of voices in our podcast–and therefore in the archive–are not just “characteristics” of the aural storytelling or listening process, but are as much an essential part of the story itself. In line with what The Sonic Color Line reminds us, our work also finds that, “sound frequently appears to be visuality’s doppelgänger in U.S. racial history” (Stoever 4). This leads to the coding of race as not just visual but aural too. We want to clarify that the white constructed ideas of how people of color must sound flatten out the complexities in how people within and across communities do sound. At the same time, these notions of white sonic normativity also create a strong sense of what one must or must not sound like in order to succeed in the racial capitalist world order. The storytellers of our podcast and we ourselves are of diverse backgrounds. This, for us, is a way to demonstrate the “complex range of sounds actually produced by people of color” (Stoever 43). As Nancy Morales argues in “Óyeme Voz: U.S. Latin@ & Immigrant Communities Re-Sound Citizenship and Belonging,” the sound of ‘everyday voices’ mobilized against—and remarking on—the nation-state’s attempts to mark immigrant communities as vulnerable exerts an impactful and profoundly material agency.” With its conversational and collaborative format, our podcast serves as a dynamic medium to represent (his)stories that complicate generic conventions in critical ways.

Then, collaboration.

We have also been personally deeply impacted by the process of working on this podcast. We have made lasting bonds with our colleagues and storytellers alike. The storytellers of our podcast act not just as guests, but as collaborators and stakeholders. Instead of interpreting the stories in our own way and retelling the stories, we collaborate with the storytellers, and facilitate the unfolding of hidden stories by the storytellers. Dr. Lisa Yun, Professor of English at Binghamton University, and Kathryn Lloyd, Senior Director of Programs, Tenement Museum, have been advisors and the executive producers of the podcast. Together with Lloyd and Yun, we built a project on the ethos of collaboration.

The editing process of IWA too, is different. Rather than making individual editorial decisions, we engage the storytellers directly in post-production. After finishing a first edit of an episode collaboratively between ourselves, we then send it to the storytellers for their feedback and approval before releasing it. Sometimes, the storytellers do suggest changes. Based on their feedback, we re-edit the episode and eventually release it after the storytellers approval. We have also innovated methods of community editing, where we edit in groups of as large as 15 people.

Finally, accessibility.

The podcast medium makes Immigrants Wake America an ideal project for the public humanities. As opposed to lengthier podcasts, each episode of our podcast is edited down to 15-20 minutes. These can be used by educators as an in-class resource to generate discussion and activities. Community listeners could tune in during lunch breaks, get-togethers, cooking, driving or doing chores. Our episodes can also serve as conversation starters and help facilitate affective bonds among immigrants and non-immigrants alike.

The final episode of our first season, “Finding Our Grandmother in the Records,” aired just last week, and a second season is in the works.

As a way to expand this project, our second season will feature storytellers from our local community in addition to Your Story, Our Story. We plan to have units within our project dedicated to translation, recording and editing, and creating teaching resources. We aim for meaningful and engaged conversations and try to blur the supposed boundaries between the university and the community. Join us!

The first season of Immigrants Wake America was sponsored through the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Binghamton University and a Public Humanities Grant from Humanities New York. Dr. Lisa Yun, Professor of English at Binghamton University, and Kathryn Lloyd, Senior Director of Programs, Tenement Museum, have been our advisors and the executive producers of the podcast. IWA is available on major streaming platforms such as Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music, Soundcloud, and Audible.

Le Li and Shruti Jain are pursuing their PhDs at Binghamton University in the Translation Research and Instruction Program and the English Department respectively. They were Humanities New York Public Humanities fellows (2021-22) and graduate fellows of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH) at Binghamton University (2021-22). Through their podcast project and their work with digital community archives, Le and Shruti are currently working on exploring intersection between podcasts and digital archiving. They try to capitalize on the unique ability that the form of the podcast offers to cut across racial and gendered lines of preconceived sonic notions, which makes possible the conception of an archive that can be both dynamic and collaborative. Le’s research interests include translation studies, cultural studies, diaspora studies, and public humanities. Shruti’s PhD focuses on the Enlightenment, British Empire and the relationalities between race and caste formations. 

REWIND!…If you liked this post, you may also dig all this good stuff about sound studies pedagogy! Good luck with Fall semester, folks!:

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Audio Culture Studies: Scaffolding a Sequence of Assignments– Jentery Sayers

Deep Listening as Philogynoir: Playlists, Black Girl Idiom, and Love–Shakira Holt

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(Re)Locating Soundscapes of Schooling: Learning to Listen to Children’s Lifeworlds–Cassie J. Brownell

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The Sound of What Becomes Possible: Language Politics and Jesse Chun’s 술래 SULLAE (2020)

“To this day I think about all the strange words I missed out on, all the losses I’m still carrying from faraway…I still think of the time when I spoke one language, and that language was whole.”

Chun 2020

Language can be a site of loss, a wholeness with which one, due to migration, has never really known. In the above passage, artist, Jesse Chun, reflects on how her grandmother spoke words in a language she did not understand, but yearned to hear and feel those sounds after her passing. There is a sonic residue that sticks to diasporic experiences. There are sounds that can stir up a blend of affect and ideation that is comforting when whiteness is unsettling. It is this disjuncture between words, meaning, and their sounds, that drew me to Chun’s work, 술래 SULLAE (2020). This piece reminded me of how sound, in its most ambiguous and queer forms, can hold the contingencies of history, language, memory, family, and the genealogies of loss that mark these sites of colonial dispossession.

술래 SULLAE (2020) is a single channeled video that draws from ganggang sullae, a Korean seasonal harvest and fertility ritual that integrates song and dance and is typically performed by women under the glow of moonlight. The participants hold hands forming a circle that through their movement, expands, disassembles, and changes its form. The songs can be both impromptu or pre-determined and encourages the participants to express their feelings in chorus with one another.

Video made by the Cultural Heritage Administration of the Republic of Korea (2008) for UNESCO “intangible heritage” application

Diana Seo Hyung Lee (2020) suggests that historically ganggang sullae was meant to provide a forum for its participants to express emotions connected to living within patriarchal systems of power and oppression. She writes: “the women participating would not have been able to, in their everyday lives, sing, speak loudly, nor leave the house at night, in the patriarchal society of ancient Korea. This dance was a license for their one release.” In 술래 SULLAE, the dance proves to be a defiant presence. The women flash on screen as an unbreakable chain reinscribing a gendered history with new sounds and images that gesture to emancipatory possibilities.

술래 SULLAE combines archival clips of ganggang sullae, index pages from intonation books, images of Hangul and English consonants and audio splices from YouTube tutorials on how to pronounce English correctly. In the video, language becomes unhinged from expectation but at the same time, given form through history. The sound of the English language is disembodied and spliced into phonemic pulses.  In 술래 SULLAE, Chun has created an encounter with the grammars of polyphony; a simultaneity of sounds that are both restrained by and resistant to the imposition of English on the Korean diaspora. Through what Chun has described as a form of “unlanguaging” following Rey Chow, her audience is witness to new meanings produced through the abstraction, manipulation, and redaction of sounds and symbols from the English language.

Still from 술래 SULLAE (2020), courtesy of the artist

Chun’s editing and manipulation of English sounds is intentional. In an interview with Art Forum, Chun shares: “Taking the sound apart but still keeping it within the conceptual framework of English made me think about what else is embedded in making a language. English is tied up with legacies of imperialism; there’s so much unseen violence that is part of how this language is institutionalized.” What remains after the edits is an inventory of sounds that disrupts the primacy of the vowel as central to English word construction and thus, central to colonial imagination.  

Like Chun, I realize that my conceptualizing of language is within an English framework, but my hope is that when we turn to the affective and when we begin to pull language a part, something different, something resistant, is produced.  I am neither an expert in English nor Korean linguistics, it was the sounds in this work that pulled me into it. In thinking with 술래 SULLAE, I’m interested in what becomes possible in the absence of the vowel. I turn to the interruptive potential of consonant sounds to affect and incite methods of communication outside of those steeped in colonial dominance. What does it mean to de-emphasize the function of vowel sounds in language and reorient our listening to the consonant? What do consonant sounds teach us about the sonics of race that underwrite hierarchies of language? What methods of communication become possible when we do away with words and are left with only their sonic substance?

술래 SULLAE 3-channel excerpt

Through her assemblage of consonant sounds in 술래 SULLAE, Chun is making a deliberate choice to describe and animate a politics of language through refusing its colonial enclosures and turning to the aesthetic in order hold the excesses of description. She refuses the vowel in this piece, not by denying its presence, but instead relegating it to the soundless and the unfamiliar, a space of, in her words, “untranslatability.” In this undoing, consonants become the emotive force where new meanings and orientations to the sounds that mark our words are forged.

술래 SULLAE opens with the sound ssshhh; a pairing of consonant sounds that is often associated with insisting on silence, a sound meant to reprimand. Chun extracts and emplaces this sound in a new aesthetic landscape that is independent and unregulated by colonial schemas of enunciation and translation. The prominent soundscapes of the video are consonant sounds and when removed from their phonetic relations to vowels these sounds undo the presumptive structuring or potential reprimand of English. In 술래 SULLAE, we are meant to experience the fullness of the consonants’ timbre…ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk…these edited clips of sound originally meant to instruct and assimilate speech into English pronunciations now serve a different function. For me, they secure Chun’s political orientation: one that is about the crafting of a world that involves the careful consideration of the logistics, function, and embedded emotions of the sounds that inhabit it.

score (for unlanguaging), 2020
graphite, watermarks, paper, aluminum frame, 13 x 16 inches

All languages contain their own unique set of vowels and consonants, but, Anne Carson reminds us that: “The importance of vowels to human speech has remained. There are words in English without consonants, but so central are vowels to word construction that there isn’t a word in English that doesn’t include a vowel.” In speech, consonants sounds are meant to break up the intended agenda of vowels. The ssshhh, ppp, ddd, tttt, kkkk, are antithetical to the circle or the rounded mouth needed to voice a vowel sound. Unlike the openness of a vowel, producing consonant sounds involves a narrowing of the vocal tract. This narrowing is referred to as constriction or the obstruction of breath whereby sound is produced by a form of corporeal tension. Consonant sounds also demand all the mechanics of the mouth: the lips, the teeth, the tongue, and the palette. Shhhh, requires the corners of the lips to lower and rather than rounding, the lips become pursed, and teeth become exposed. Parts of the mouth are drawn in. The soft palate is raised, and the tongue reaches upwards towards the roof of the mouth without touching it and then the tip of the tongue lowers behind the teeth.

Consonants emerge out of collectivity. Where a vowel is sounded without vocal constraint, consonants require more effort. Their sounds are produced through intricate bodily choreographies in the mouth that involve both constriction and collaboration. Ganggangsullae likewise relies on effort and interdependence. Participants collectively determine the speed and/or shape of their dance. They may even become serpentine or separate into smaller circles depending on what the group decides. The dance also provides an aesthetic space for its participants to voice frustration, anger, and tension through song with the hopes of producing reprieve from gendered hardships. Chun has decided to withhold these songs from her audience; we never hear the women singing. Through this erasure, Chun embeds the consonant sound with affective force whereby a politics of language and gendered presence is enunciated through and beyond a form of silencing. The dance redirects trajectories of dominance whereby the shushing takes on a new voice imbued with agency and hope. Because of how Chun isolates and amplifies its sound, ssshhhh is free to take on different meanings and associations. For me, I was reminded of rushing water or gusts of wind, or the sound used to lull my child to sleep. I was brought into another index of knowing and relating.

술래 SULLAE, 3-channel installation view, 2020, courtesy of the artist

The sounds of language hold erasures and layered histories often obfuscated by our mundane encounters with them. Largely understood as the most sonorous part of the syllable, vowels produce the loudest speech sounds and their capacity for holding larger amplitudes or louder volumes have been linked to the sonic expression of emotion. Consonant sounds are more pragmatic than vowels. They are known for their functionality, for the ways in which they assemble the semantic structure of words and for their capacities to hold vowels in place or as Anne Carson describes as “delineating meaning amid the flow of open vowel sounds.” Consonant and vowel sounds map out different functional trajectories by virtue of the shape of mouth and orientation of breath that these sounds demand. Like Chun, I’m interested in what political orientations become possible when we source emotion elsewhere, beyond the confines of spoken words imposed upon us.

The word consonant is a noun, a word used to identify or classify, a semantic enclosure that establishes a subject or object. But unlike the word vowel, consonant is also an adjective. A consonant possesses the capacity to describe, to name, to tell us more. Adjectives parcel out description on states of being, in this way, they are inherently phenomenological. In 술래 SULLAE, Chun empties vowels of their sonic substance leaving behind traces of fragmented characters and differently shaped circles in their wake. They are stripped of breath and their symbolic value forming a new method of communication that reroutes expectations of what language, as we know it, can do and sound like. Like, ganggang sullae, the vowel is premised on the shape of a circle, but in 술래 SULLAE, Chun provokes us to think about what becomes possible beyond the circular structuring device, what becomes possible beyond the purview of the violent embeddedness of English and its colonial exigencies.

new moons, 2020, graphite on wall, surveillance mirror, 18 x 6 inches each
untitled (ㄷ), 2020, a functional concrete stool, courtesy of artist

Chun has noted that the moon that hovers above the ganggangsullae is yet another site of imperial conquest. In Art Forum, Chun states: “when I look up at it to feel comforted or to find solace, I’m reminded of colonial violence and an agenda that’s projected onto it. In that way, the moon also reflected how I see language.” Chun’s turn to consonants signals a reshaping of the colonial frame that does not disavow or idealize the legacies of imperialism on systems of communication, but instead highlights the tensions and obstructions produced in its shadows.

Featured image: 술래 SULLAE, 2020, single-channel version, courtesy of artist

Casey Mecija is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication & Media Studies at York University. Her current research examines sound as a mode of affective, psychic and social representation, specifically in relation to diasporic experience. Drawing on sound studies, queer diaspora studies and Filipinx Studies, her research considers how sensorial encounters are enmeshed and disciplined by social and psychic conditions. She is also a musician and filmmaker, whose work has received a number of accolades and has been presented internationally.

tape-reel

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