This is a guest blog post by Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Jeffrey Yoo Warren in conversation with Vic Xu, an anti-disciplinary artist whose work explores the potential of storytelling to create room for counter-histories and counter-archives, and Vuthy Lay, who draws from the language of the everyday to create work that flows between images, objects, and memory to sit with moments of quiet possibility. You can read more about the Seeing Lost Enclaves effort in previous blog posts. Jeff’s relational reconstruction toolkit is now available on the LC Labs website.
Jeff: While work on Seeing Lost Enclaves has continued along many distinct lines, from video guides to a large virtual visit hosted on Zoom, I’ve been quietly and regularly meeting with two other Providence-area Asian American artists whose work I admire — Vic Xu and Vuthy Lay.
Vic: Working with these two has been a process filled with tender moments of transmission: between centuries, between family and neighborhood histories, and between one another and our individual questionings into family history, home, and remembrance.
Vuthy: Since our auspicious introductions, we’ve found a lot of common ground within our interests in collective memory and placemaking. I’ve been grateful for how organic our conversations and, ultimately, explorations have been in bridging our own cultural identities and altar practices to create intentional space for restorative conversations.
Jeff: We began working together almost a year ago, imagining a way of relating to these histories that could be more personal, less archival — more multisensory, and outside of galleries or libraries.
On September 7, after many months of preparation we hosted Tigers & Portals for the first time publicly. As night fell, guests began to arrive at a warmly lit street food-inspired space right next to where Chinatown had been 120 years earlier. Food was provided by Asia Grille, run by Charlie and Chenelle Chin, who are both descendants of Providence Chinatown. Our menu that night included Taishanese Four Seasons soup which represents both a direct connection with their ancestral region of China as well as that of many of the earliest residents of Chinatown.
The challenge in reconnecting to this place is partly in how we each relate to this community. Of course we want to avoid a sense of tourism, of exoticism. And we also know that these histories have many layered meanings to all Asian Americans and Asian Diaspora who live in the area today. But those meanings aren’t all focused on the displacement and discrimination that occurred; as Asian Americans, we have as much or more to learn from the warmer moments. We remember that connection, or re-connection, doesn’t always happen through words or images. As we share the history that we know, we also ask visitors to make time for their other senses and imagination, since the doors we find in our own memories and family histories are more powerful than those we find in the archives.
Vic: I was really touched by the number of attendees that left us the knots we’d all made together. As part of the evening’s activities, we taught a traditional knot-tying technique – known as “good luck knots” – and we’ve been stringing together knots folx leave behind for us into one long connected strand each time we do the pop-up. Each pop-up’s strand will eventually be knotted together into one cohesive net made up of the touch of all the folx that have passed through this memory space of Providence’s Chinatown. We always give folx the option to leave a knot with us, or take what they make with them – so seeing the bounty of knots folx chose to give us to be a part of a collective whole was moving.
For the immersive part of the experience, we guided groups of three visitors at a time up the street to what was then Burrill Street, an early part of Providence’s Chinatown that we had reconstructed in 3D. But first we asked them to choose between three different animal masks, with cardboard VR headsets embedded, to accompany them in this experience. Designing this part of the visit was challenging. In earlier test events, we provided some historical description of the spaces, and we visited three different spots. But as we discussed things, we felt that this pacing was rushed, and that people didn’t really have enough time to experience each place in depth. We also wanted to both amplify the feeling of a more personal experience while providing more chances to express it.
Jeff: With this in mind, and building on my ongoing collaboration with Dri Chiu Tattersfield, we crafted a script which placed the listener within the space as a resident of the neighborhood, which worked in part because almost all of our attendees were Asian American. We focused on sensory experiences rather than a historical perspective – noting the materials of the street and walls, the street sounds and smells as they might have been in 1904.
Vuthy: Through a combination of spoken narrative and recorded memories by descendants, the script created a human connection that invited visitors to also participate as community historians. And amidst all of the activity of downtown Providence, was a performance that layered the experience of the same place at two different times simultaneously. This naturally allowed for reflection and further conversations in the night as different groups overlapped.
Jeff: We’d worked on this event for a very long time, and I was a little nervous finally running it. But everything went smoothly and it was so gratifying to be able to share this with so many in the community. We’re looking forward to continuing this series!
In 2024, Jeff will be hosting public workshops around the country. Read about the ways you can stay up to date beyond The Signal on the Seeing Lost Enclaves page.