When I found out at the beginning of this semester that the Film and Media Studies Department at Swarthmore College had hired a new professor who was queer and Asian, I could barely contain my excitement. I sent Erica an email right away to see if we could meet and she has quickly become an important role model for me in the past couple of months. Not only is she queer and Asian but she is also an artist in academia (triple-A as she put it)! Asian, Gay and Proud is honored to highlight her on Out and Successful.
Who? name, age, what you identify as (or not)
Erica Cho, 37, Queer & Free & Bi-coastal
What? what do you do for a living or things you would like to do
I’m a visual artist, writer/director in film, tarot reader/healer… and teacher at Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges. I’d like to draw more. I’d like to have access to the city but live in a home surrounded by nature, trees, and a babbling brook. My girlfriend says this is called a suburb.
When did you come out? Any stories?
Coming out is a long and endless process. I pronounced my first lesbian love when I was in kindergarten. But I seriously started the process when I was 17. Sometimes it feels like I have to come out everyday: to strangers, people in ignorance, or people with regenerative denial – otherwise known as my family.
How did coming out impact your career or relationships with others?
It helped me mature emotionally and creatively. The energy spent on hiding, fear and denial was re-directed to connecting with other folks and developing my voice as an artist.
Miyuki: Although you teach film at Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, you’ve worked in a number of mediums: comics, sculptures, printmaking and installation work. What is it that attracts you to these different mediums?
Erica: Although it’s not apparent because of the form the work takes – the form is usually something that’s popular or pop in some way – I actually identify as a conceptual artist. So whether I use the plastic arts or a popular art form like filmmaking or comics, I’m motivated by the idea. The form is also motivated by who my audience is, who I want to target, and how much money I have at the time, or even the level of risk I want to take with the project. With some work I want to just be able to play, so I’ll deliberately make sure it’s low or no budget and something I can do on my own.
Miyuki: As a mixed media artist myself, I’ve been dabbling with the idea that queer artists who are already used to challenging gender norms or defying heteronormativity and other societal roles, tend to use more mixed media or unconventional media because they want to break out of the traditional canons that exist in the art world. Queering the process of art making in a sense. Do you see that being a possible influence?
Erica: I think…………….. I see you transcribing this with a thousand ellipses (laughter). It’s an interesting question, and I never thought about it that way, but I do think that that ‘queer spirit’ does translate into a lot of different spheres in your life, influencing not just how you’re creating, nor just your sexuality or gender, but what family is, what it means to be spiritual, what it means to eat and how you get your food, what it means to communicate. And I do feel that art is so much a part of the soul of a society. So yeah, I would say, “Yes, of course!”
Miyuki: If someone asks you what kind of artist you are, what would you say?
Erica: I’ll say I’m a visual artist and filmmaker.
Miyuki: So you see those as different branches?
Erica: I see it separately not so much to define my approach, nor my methods, but more in where the work is presented or exhibited. So I’m speaking to how my audience might be able to find my work. But personally, I don’t see there being a distinct difference.
What is the most difficult part of being an artist who works directly in the intersectionality of being queer and Asian? How do you work with and against stereotypes?
In my work, conceptually I’ve been interested in exploring the stereotypes of inscrutability or invisibility and being open to looking at what the potential in that stereotype might be. Asians are perceived to be inscrutable or invisible or voiceless or one of the masses, and I’ll flip it and decide to explore that stereotype and begin to see people who are extroverted and space-taking as actually lacking the ability or potential to be invisible. I know it sounds like I like the stealth ninja, but I won’t immediately accept certain qualities as a weakness.
Miyuki: So you want to make the best of those stereotypes or be more optimistic?
Erica: More like looking at the ways in which silence is powerful and how even invisibility can be powerful. I made this film about the Karate Kid movie from 1984, and I was really interested and curious about people’s fascination with the character of Mr. Miyagi, who’s a stereotyped character. He’s a shaman wiseman, he helps the white boy or anyone who’s not Asian, so he’s the person of color healer, he’s somewhat neutered, he’s alone, he’s somewhat silent, and he does karate. He’s a karate master, and he has a beautiful bonsai garden even though he’s a maintenance man. He doesn’t really have a visible community, and he exists to perform this stereotyped role, but at the same time, Mr. Miyagi was an arresting image. So instead of directly challenging how he’s represented, I was curious and open to looking at his image in a different way, which you see a hint of at the end of We Got Moves and which is developed more fully in School Boy Art.
To take an example of invisibility in a different context, when second-generation Asian Americans grow up, we’re like, “My mother never told me she loved me!” And while that may be true, that there needs to be a balance, it’s about looking at those things we often view as negative and instead seeing the strength and power there.
Miyuki: It’s really refreshing to hear you talk about stereotypes in that way. I know that you’ve spoken about your project “School Boy Art” as an attempt to show the recovery of sexuality and desire through the feminine—or through the balanced merging of the feminine and masculine? You even mention Yin and Yang.
Erica: Oh that was kind of a joke…
Miyuki: Well even if the Yin and Yang bit is more of a joke, your work often explores those two extremes of the masculine and feminine energies (i.e. the faggotized dyke) and playing with the binary. I can see that by merging the two, you are also creating a different gender or a non-gender. How do you contextualize the traditional narrative in your radically queer film?
Erica: In my work I hope to challenge people to consider the values with which we’re measuring what’s important, what’s powerful, what a voice is. So that’s what motivates me. I never have a particular position or perspective that I want other people to adopt. My work is not like a return to the cultural roots in a purist way. It’s not even about a direct affirmation of stereotypes because those have been very damaging in our lived realities. It’s more like being a trickster figure. For example the word “lesbian” has often been rejected, and people have been challenging it… for good reason – because of the limitations of the word to encapsulate how one might identify, or its disconnect with certain cultures or generations. But I am also wary of the possibility of our own internalized homophobia and misogyny at work, so I feel compelled to play the trickster and reclaim the word. Even on a personal level, just to be a brat sometimes…people will be saying “Lesbians this, lesbians that,” and I’ll say, “I’m a lesbian!”, even though I more strongly identity with the word “queer”. Some people really need you to tell them what you are. I remember I was confronted by a friend who was confused by my romantic involvements at one point, and they asked me, “Are you bi?”, and the trickster took over, and I said, “Yes! I’m bisexual!” I really didn’t care if they told the whole world; I just thought: “Yeah, I’m going to be this weird word.” It’s like an experiment of my own life…. Like, what would it feel like to say I’m this today? How will that affect the way people treat me? Do people need me to be something right now? And so instead of saying “No! I don’t believe in labels,” I try the other route. I think that’s how my artist mind works too.
Miyuki: It’s amazing what one word can signify isn’t it? You could tell someone that you’re queer and they might assume who you are, what you do in bed, what kind of relationship you’re in, etc. But how do you think that your coming to terms with your queer API identity has affected the way that you depict queer API sexuality in your art?
Erica: On one hand with some of my work, such as School Boy Art or We Got Moves (videos), or even some of my earlier prints and comics/zines, after the piece is done, there are all these things happening that are interesting to the viewer in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. So while a scholar may be really interested in the representation of the old Asian male figure as a queer in School Boy Art, this representation wasn’t the initial inspiration behind the work. I wanted to tell a story about art school, really to critique art school, but in the end it might not seem like that to some audiences. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that these stories feel so natural to me. I want to tell stories, and it feels most natural to tell them from my own experiences. So not quite accidentally these other interesting things start to happen.
On the other hand, I am aware that Asians/Asian Americans who address this issue of voice or presence and visibility in their work can be a site of anxiety for Americans in terms of conversations on race and racism. As a result we are often overlooked in our complexity and the specificity of our experiences. So telling a story which casts API folk has become a prominent motivation in my present film, Golden Golden, which stars two young queer trans API folk in Southern California. It was a very conscious decision to have one character be hapa-Asian and Latina. At the same time I’m very much influenced by who my community is and who my friends are, and I’m often moved to create a story around them. My friends are queer, trans, API, and cute, and I wanted them to be in a film. My community is my muse.
Miyuki: You know, I think what’s amazing about film and acting is that by examining the performance and the roles that are being played, the performativity of our daily lives becomes so apparent. So to wrap it up, do you have any advice you can give to other Asian, Gay & Proud readers.
Erica: Give yourself time and give other folks time. Don’t let anyone pressure you into coming out to your family when you are not ready. Take the time to deepen and nurture friendships, not just one lover. Connect with many other people (like within this forum) who have similar cultural experiences or backgrounds. Coming out is not always pretty and neat, so have compassion for your folks, family and friends whose values and entire perspectives on life may be challenged by just saying you are queer or trans.
Engage in spiritually healing and creative practices: walking meditation without a smart phone, tarot reading with a friend, community or personal gardening, drawing, even church can be healing.
Erica’s website: http://wegotmoves.com/
Check out one of Erica’s films: http://vimeo.com/1315248
See a previous interview here: http://www.wegotmoves.com/projects/schoolboyart_intv.html