Authors: Dr. Athia N. Choudhury and Liangyu Peng
Throughout the 2022 calendar year, Dr. Anna Storti, Assistant Professor of GSF, and Dr. Yun Emily Wang, Assistant Professor of Music, convened Minor Aesthetics, a working group sponsored by the Franklin Humanities Institute. In the spring, the working group held three workshops, where graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, faculty, and invited artists were in conversation about their respective scholarly and creative practices. In the fall, and with generous support from the FHI, the Duke Endowment, GSF, Music, and AADS, Drs. Storti and Wang organized a two-day symposium, including a performance, artist talks, a research showcase, an AADS Brown Bag, and a closing roundtable. Throughout, the working group hosted two artists-in-residence, Chanel Matsunami Govreau (a Brooklyn-based artist who explores the intersections of monstrous femininity, queerness, and Japanese-American identity) and Jae Quisol (a Charlotte-based artist who brings the force of history and cultural power to intentional songwriting and collaborative experimentation).
Wednesday October 12, as written by Dr. Athia Choudhury
It starts with an Asian femme walking down steps, shrouded in soft-sculptured armor–plush white pillows with earthy green patterns evoking Asian fantasy and cosplay design elements. We watch as our protagonist, known as Zanna, walks towards a pile of sculptures matching the ones that fold around their body, a pile that sits layered on a white sheet resembling stones atop a burial mound. Zanna is careful in the pieces they choose to lift up; you can feel their fingers intentionally curving around the objects in their hands as they begin to move the sculptures into smaller piles or stick and stitch them together onto the arms of the steps. Floating in the background is a dreamy soundscape of forest and synth, with an airy voice reciting what sounds like a mix between guided meditation and critical inner monologue.
As the sculptures are moved, we see the edges of a body–brown and still–a sight that would otherwise evoke deep terror if not for the fierce loyalty and playfulness of Zanna lifting the pieces off the pile and transforming the objects to remake the space with new designs. We wait for the body that has been grounded to take a deep breath. We wait for an awakening.
“You are not disappearing. You are blending. You are not dying, you are becoming permanent.”
Slowly, slowly, the body is revealed. Slowly, slowly, the two join hands, and lift up together, make their way up the steps together, and begin making together–through patchwork sewing and song.
“This Line is a door. An opening and closing. Whatever you choose. Whatever you need.”
Soon the making is done, the sewing put away, the music plays on. They walk again towards the audience, as Zanna begins to remove their armor, piece by piece. They pin and stitch and wring the plushes onto this other body, blurring who is Zanna and who is Zanna becoming. It is only now, once covered in this new-old armor that the body once on the ground breathes in deep, whole. We end on a reversal that feels more like a cycle of care, of holding and healing, of being healed and being held.
“You looked just like me, but altered by time, not age, but a timeline. Your face, blank and unshakable.”
Artist-in-residences Chanel Matsunami Govreau and Jae Quisol–who’ve been working with the Minor Aesthetics Working Group since Spring of 2022– offered up portals to queerer, more tender worlds in their piece Zanna in Iswa, performed at the Minor Aesthetics symposium on October 12th. The Wednesday events included a brown bag talk where the artists described kinship formations as a kind of politics of abundance, a stunning performance on the steps of the East Duke building, followed by a lively artist talk with q&a from the audience. Govreau and Quisol are artists working across multiple mediums and materials/instruments whose collaboration brought together Govreau’s sculptural pieces with Quisol’s newest sonic release, titled “In the Flesh.” As the q&a revealed, the performance landed for each person differently–as being moved, confused, or stuck, perhaps three– in many ways mirroring the function of a doorway and the choice to see what’s on the other side. At the center of the events was a call to intentionally examine creative practice to help make sense of racialized bodies and feelings.
Thursday, October 13, as written by Liangyu Peng
After the Wednesday gathering on the East Duke lawn, where the audience was hailed by Govreau and Quisol into a spiritual world created by their interdisciplinary, collaborative performance “Zanna in Iswa”, attendees reconvened in the Pink Parlor on Thursday morning.
At the Working Group Showcase, three invited scholars presented their research and writing. SaeHim Park, a Ph.D. candidate in Art History, presented a chapter from her dissertation "Imaging 'Comfort Women': Girl Statue of Peace in the Expanded Field"; Dr. Athia N. Choudhury, postdoctoral fellow in the Asian American and Diaspora Studies Program, shared the central questions that emerge in her book manuscript “Gut Cultures: Metabolic Personhood and the Promise of Wellness”; Jaeyeon Yoo, a Ph.D. student in Literature, read an excerpt from her creative writing to honor her night dreams and familial attachments.
The artists spent the afternoon visiting the classes taught by the symposium’s co-conveners: Dr. Wang’s graduate seminar “Sonotopias: Sound and Space” and Dr. Storti’s undergraduate seminar “Race, Gender, and Sexuality.”
At the closing roundtable, by bringing disciplinary perspectives and personal rumination, four speakers contributed to the discussion of the aesthetics, methods, and genre of “the minor” as well as desires for queer Asian diasporic community at Duke. Dr. Hy V. Huynh (GHI) underscored research findings that show how community connectedness is an essential driver for LGBTQ+ mental health and the emerging minority strengths model which may counter the established minority stress model. Dr. Guo-Juin Hong (AMES) understood “minor” as the insistence on productive insecurity and “aesthetics” as both a dangerous colonial concept and a unique chance to examine what is achieved in the wake of rights discourse. Dr. Yun Emily Wang (Music) sensed a distinct articulation of Minor Aesthetics in Chanel and Quisol’s performance, that is the aesthetics of the everyday—a shuttling between the ordinary and the catastrophe and the labor of returning to the everyday. Dr. Anna Storti (GSF) reflected on this quotidian labor by inviting people to reside at the moment that we gather and feel this gathering, despite the fact that sometimes the utopian notion of community does not work for us. The discussion then ended with a practice of imagination of the wild, limitless future for our personal and collective living.
Athia N. Choudhury, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Associate AADS. Athia is a writer and cultural theorist who earned a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity with a graduate certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies from the University of Southern California (2022). Her work explores the intersections of food, militarism, eugenics, sexuality, and body surveillance in the 20th and 21st centuries. Athia’s writing is published or forthcoming in The Journal of Transnational American Studies, Disability Studies Quarterly, The Routledge International Handbook on Fat Studies, and translated for the German anthology Fat Studies: Doing, Becoming, and Being Fat.
Liangyu Peng, MA student in East Asian Studies. Her research interests include queer of color critique, queer diaspora, minoritarian politics, the aesthetics of the everyday, and performance studies. Liangyu previously graduated as a Communications (Advertising) major and worked as a culture journalist in China.