(Re)translating Cultural Engravings in the Transpacific: Reflections on the Transregional Academy
Daniella Trimboli Research Fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation
One month has almost past since the end of the Transregional Academy and reflecting on that excellent week feels a little like reflecting on a good dream: happy but hazy, a parallel universe. The Transregional Academy on Migrant Knowledges in and Across the Transpacific was special for many reasons, not least because the usual parameters in place at academic conferences were malleable, if not completely absent. We were asked to share our papers before the Academy, but it was stressed that these papers ought to be works-in-progress, rather than polished bodies of work. We were told in the opening session to explore, experiment, and feel relaxed. And, most decadent of all—we were each given ninety minutes to present our work and discuss it with a small group of scholars of no more than eight in number. The kind of space one dreams about as a scholar but rarely has the opportunity to experience.
The Academy participants were separated into three working groups. I was assigned to Group A, whose scholars were loosely linked together via common interests in diaspora, mobility, and visual practices. We each arrived at these themes from different approaches and disciplines, which allowed for a rich and interesting discussion. Sometimes, these kinds of multi-disciplinary meet-ups can feel a bit vapid, but the group curators did a great job of matching our interests so that our closed workshops were robust and genuinely useful. I am so grateful for what I was able to learn from sharing my work in this space.
My Group A peers were: Mitiana Arbon (Australian National University), Hayley Brazier (University of Oregon), Connor Hamm (University of California LA), Rachel Lim (University of California Berkeley), Albert Manke (Bielefeld University), and Samid Suliman (Griffith University). Over the course of the week, we presented and workshopped our respective papers and provocations, each of which situated and explored ‘the Pacific’ in varying ways. Arbon’s paper examined how art auction houses prescribe value to Pacific art via Western value systems and offered ways to disrupt these prescriptions. Suliman’s paper examined how climate change is causing different world views to collide in the Pacific, requiring us to think about migration structures in collaborative – and possibly regional – ways. Lim’s paper focussed on the Korean diaspora in Mexico, and asked questions pertaining to the circulation of migrant knowledge as well as claims to diaspora via embodied and corporeal practices of ‘Koreanness’. Brazier was grappling with cartographic issues of the sea floor, specifically, how the notion of the deep sea is dominantly mapped by Western European frameworks and how this space might be visually storied alternatively. My own paper examined how whiteness lands in particular ways in Australia and how this is contested or reaffirmed through digital, diasporic interventions. Finally, Hamm’s paper was working to establish ways to use Pacific-based art on climate change to intervene in Western Art History, and, ultimately, how the terms of ‘humanness’ might be rearticulated through Pacific-based art projects.
Some common themes and ideas began to emerge in Group A’s workshops that can be captured by the key words that reappeared throughout the week, as summarised below.
Nation-state versus region?
We thought about different ways to conceptualise geographical areas and structures which we all sought to challenge to varying degrees — especially that of the ‘nation state’— but we found it difficult to introduce new terms or concepts without reinstating, or at least invoking the old ones. Nonetheless, we persisted! We asked: does the idea of a Transpacific region allow us to productively undo the binary structures associated with the nation-state/state borders or do we ultimately reproduce the same issues? Can we mobilise the ‘trans’ of ‘Transpacific’ in ways that help us undo the binary (and colonial) thinking that plagues migration and diaspora studies?
We grappled with notions of temporality, particularly via the idea of ‘futurity.’ Many of us were interested in how the future gets apprehended by cultural groups and broader structures of power. We asked: how do we enact a futural or hopeful politics in the Transpacific without collapsing into paternalistic thinking, or foreclosing the possibilities of movement and fluidity that we desperately need at this (too frequently violent) moment of intensive im/mobility?
We spent a lot of time interrogating discourses of ‘crisis.’ Crisis overshadows contemporary understandings of migration, especially in the Transpacific where climate change and displacement are intensifying. What counts as a crisis? Who gets to define and respond to a crisis and who does not? How does crisis punctuate history and the way we affectively embody a sense of the future? How does this embodiment differ between non-racialised and racialised bodies?
In our respective presentations, we found ourselves having to more closely consider the scale at which we were locating and then moving through ‘the Pacific.’ When we invoke scale we are participating in a world-making exercise. What kind of world do we make when we invoke the ‘Pacific-rim’ versus the ‘Asia-Pacific’ verses the ‘Transpacific’ and so on? Together, we considered how we might be able to zoom in and zoom out on our various analyses of Transpacific migration and how doing so can change the texture of knowledge production in resistive and (critically) cosmopolitan ways.
Alternative catalogues and archives
One thing that struck me in Group A’s workshops, though which we did not discuss directly, was the move everyone was making to practice an alternative form of archival excavation and contemporary cataloguing. This practice was obvious in papers such as Arbon’s and Grazier’s, who were deliberating intervening into long-standing and highly Imperialist practices of knowledge production, but it came through to some degree in everyone’s papers, even if incidentally. We all were attempting to challenge dominant, colonised knowledge about the Transpacific, but more than that, we all seemed to be moving to a space in which the academic methodologies used to do this work were also challenged. The creative research session that the brilliant Katerina Teaiwa (Australian National University) led the Academy through on Day Two served to drive us further along this path. For me, this movement was one of the most exciting elements to emerge from the Academy and one that has pushed me to think more carefully about how I can do my own research better – more self-reflexively, more ethically. After all, what use is inquiring and writing about decolonisation if we are not going to decolonise the way we inquire and write? Frankly, very little.
There was so much more that made the Academy special: the opportunities to closely read work you might not normally, to talk openly about mundane but deeply impactful realities of neoliberal academic life, to watch great films and encounter different forms of art, to share meals, drinks, and walks together, to sing and dance to loosen our bodies and hearts, to feel safe to speak (I did not get mansplained to ONCE! Not once! Shocking, I know), and – most importantly, most humbling – to listen to and learn from Indigenous and First Nations Elders and peoples of the place we were all there to think about: ‘the Transpacific.’
On Day Five of the Academy, we took a field trip to the Immigration Center on Angel Island, where a passionate guide named Joe provided a truly memorable insight into this troubling site. It was poignant to see Chinese poetry on the walls of the Center – engraved by migrants held at the Center during the early twentieth century, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was in full swing. Even more poignant was the moment that one of the Academy participants, Wei-ti Chen (College of Charleston), read the poems aloud to us in Mandarin, which Joe then translated for us into English. The layers of connectivity in this process of (re)translation were poetic and immensely powerful and they strike me as an apt way to summarise the experience of the Academy. The Academy participants came together from different places, carrying different knowledges, and together we thought about how different kinds of cultural engravings can be read, shared, and (re)translated within and across the Transpacific. We traced old connections and set new ones in motion, and I feel very confident in writing: we will reconnect and mobilise these further in the fullness of time.
Perhaps this is an example of how to enact a futural, hopeful politics, without the perils of foreclosure?
Sincere thanks to everyone involved in the Academy, and to all sponsors and organisers who made it possible for me to attend. It was a remarkable experience and one that I will carry with me.