Judson-Morrissey 2021 Fellow: Huan He

Huan He (he/him/his) is a queer Chinese American scholar, maker, and poet. He is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and a recipient of a USC Research Enhancement Fellowship. Working at the intersection of race, technology, and visuality, his research and media practice conceptualizes digital histories as racial histories. Fascinated by the technical histories of digital, computational, and media artifacts, his work understands information technologies not simply as objects of scientific innovation but as artifacts of desire—of social dreams, hopes, fantasies, and fears in a particular historical moment. He is currently building two primary projects. The first is his dissertation, “The Racial Interface: Informatics and Asian/America,” which turns to Asian/American visual art and culture to examine myths of technological and racial “progress” in digital history. The second is his media remix series “See It Now,” which explores “liveness” not simply as evidence of technological co-presence but as a mediation of ethical relations, of who gets “to live.” His writing appears in American Quarterly and College Literature: A Journal of Critical Literary Studies. He is a member of Palah Light Lab, a queer and feminist new media collective. In his spare time, he also writes poetry and has forthcoming work in wildness and Alaska Quarterly Review.

Huan was a recipient of a 2021 Judson-Morrissey Excellence in New Media Award.

Tell us a little about your background and your trajectory as an artist/ scholar.

I was born in Zhengzhou, China and have lived in many places in the North American continent, including Saskatchewan, Ontario, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and New York. Currently, I reside in Los Angeles, CA. I graduated from Dartmouth College in 2013 with a degree in English literature and a minor in media studies. In my honors thesis, I explored queer desire and temporality in Asian/American literature. Before I entered my PhD program, I worked in the tech startup world as a project manager and was immersed in the world of web development and UX and graphic design. I entered my PhD program in 2015 to research Asian/American studies and culture. In many ways, my current research and creative agenda exploring race and technology unites both of these worlds but through the lens of media art and visual cultures. In my graduate program, I eventually found my way to the work of Nam June Paik (through his archive at the Smithsonian) and was fascinated by his involvement in the art & technology movement. I was interested in his social and racial commentary and critique and how that might be evident in his technological tinkering, especially since Paik was a minority within New York City avant-garde spaces. Media and information technologies, their artifacts and histories, are often considered to be race-neutral. Paik offered me a way to think about the intersection of race and technology, both as a PhD scholar and as a maker.

I began to explore multimedia forms of expression and critique when I realized certain things I wanted to say or do could be more compelling in visual form, rather than a scholarly essay. Through the courses and support of USC’s Media Arts + Practice (MA+P) program, I began to reinvest in my technical skills with video making, editing, and remix. During this time, I began to work on my media remix series “See It Now,” discussed below. I often think of Tara McPherson’s words from Feminist in a Software Lab: Difference + Design: “There’s an optimism born of making that is hard to reconcile with the negative force of critique” (22). For me, my artistic practice of making is very much linked to how I study race and technology as a graduate student.

What are some of your main influences?

My approach to new media is actually very influenced by the poetic form, especially poetry by writers of color. One major source of inspiration is the work of Korean American poet and media artist Theresa Hak Kyung Cha (b. 1951-1982), who is most famous for Dictee. Using experimental literary and visual forms to depict Korean diasporic history, memory, and longing, Dictee is a masterpiece in the language arts. However, what’s unique about Cha’s poetics is that it is inextricably linked to her approach to film, video, and media technologies. For instance, she was very influenced by apparatus and film theory and often used the occasion of the blank page to reproduce the operations of visuality and seeing itself. Language, for Cha, was not only a means of representation but could get at the procedure of visuality itself, a process that has consequences for marginalized subjects in history. In this sense, Cha is a profound media artist similar to others such as Nam June Paik, and her use of language is also a way to tinker with the desires wired into new media technologies—the way that Paik might use a magnet to distort televisual signals. Take, for instance, lines from her poem “audience distant relative:”

neither you nor i
are visible to each other
i can only assume that you can hear me
i can only hope that you hear me

We see the diasporic desires emanating here, but it is also about the desires and the desiring at the heart of new information and communication technologies during her time. In the same way W.J.T. Mitchell asks, “what do pictures want?” I am interested in what our technologies want, and what “we” want through these technologies. These desires not only tell us more about the media technologies themselves but reveals their place and consequences in the larger social landscape. My research and media practice tries to get at these questions. For all of these reasons, I am also influenced more broadly by glitch and remix art as well as other engagements with multimedia experimentation.

What are you working on now?

Currently, I am working on a media remix series titled “See It Now,” drawing its name from Edward R. Murrow’s CBS docuseries broadcast in the 1950s. These media artworks explore the life and death worlds under technological regimes of “liveness.” I complicate the ideology of liveness and virtual presence that has characterized the televisual and digital age. My media art suggests that “liveness” is not simply evidence of technological prowess, but it also frames a visual field of ethical relations, of who gets “to live.” Interspersing remix technique, media footage, and experimental poetry, “See It Now” helps us rethink the ethical challenges and possibilities of developing new information technologies. I have included a link to the first piece in this series titled “We Are Live!” This video remix juxtaposes the spectacle of “liveness” against the violence of drone warfare, suggesting that both stem from an imperial vision of foreign land and bodies. Other future media remixes in this series explore the circulation of racial violence “live” videos, such as first-hand documentation of anti-black police brutality and anti-Asian hate crimes. What is this fascination with “liveness” in our new media landscapes, and what are the social and racial consequences?

Of course, I am still working on my dissertation titled “The Racial Interface: Informatics and Asian/America.” Through a visual archive of art, corporate, and government sources, “The Racial Interface” shows how racial liberalism’s experiments with agency, efficiency, and representation became bound to the rise of digital power in the 20th century. I am also pursuing a secondary research project on race, games, and cheating/hacking.