Monika Kin Gagnon (2009)
Agency, Activism and Affect in the Lifework of Richard Fung
Monika Kin Gagnon
“Crossover artist” is a term that art historian David Deitcher uses to describe an artist’s multiple sites of address, as artist, teacher, and activist.1 We might comfortably apply “crossover artist” to describe Richard Fung and highlight the matrix of videos, writings and activist organizing he has contributed since the early 1980s. In addition to the respected internationally-screened body of eleven video works he has produced since 1984 (which garnered him the Bell Canada Award in Video Art in 2000), Fung has also penned over forty essays and reviews. These have been published in community-based magazines like the Asianadian and Fuse (of which he was a board member between 1995-99), as well as notable book anthologies in Canada and the U.S., including How Do I Look?, The State of Asian America, and Moving the Image: Independent Asian Pacific American Media Arts. 2 His role on consultative cultural committees, including the infamous first Advisory Committee to the Canada Council for Racial Equality in the Arts in 1990, have spawned such essential reading as “Working Through Cultural Appropriation,” in which he recounts some of the backlash surrounding the implementation of anti-racist policy at the Council, and engages core debates around cultural appropriation. 3 All in all, Fung’s profound contributions to multiple cultural discourses — among them, race, ethnicity, and postcoloniality, gay, lesbian and queer sexuality, AIDS activism, Asian Canadian and diasporic identity politics — have made the present task of historically situating Fung’s work, a daunting, if truly inter-textual task. At the onset, I would underline that Fung’s oeuvre (as is hopefully evident, this is constituted not only by his videotapes, but his critical writings, his video and film programming, and his activism), masterfully constitutes a tangible testament to the effectiveness of cultural multi-tasking. Or what might be more glamorously called, keeping the particularities of Fung’s practice in mind, a postmodern cultural politics of knowledge production, one that seems effortlessly manifested on numerous, simultaneous fronts.
In the plural, is a turn of phrase used by Québec poet, Nicole Brossard, when in her unmistakable way, she described how women writers have at different moments, had to write for community rather than simply as individuals. Particular historical conjunctures have different demands and artists may effectively respond through their practices. Brossard herein takes the descriptive quality of ‘crossover artist’ and politicizes it within a public, communal space that acknowledges the social dimensions of artistic practice, and the generosity of those who, recognizing the needs of the moment, create for community as a response to tangible social climates. In considering the broader arc of Fung’s various sites of creation and intervention, one immediately notes the appropriateness of in the plural in capturing the timeliness and generosity of his own interdisciplinary activities that have spoken with and to various communities.
Artist, activist, critic, media programmer, cultural consultant, and educator, are amongst those hats that Fung has skillfully donned. Fung’s early artistic formation included being an animator for community video production, on the heels of completing a program at the Ontario College of Art in 1977. This was followed by three years as staff producer at Rogers Cable TV, at a time, he has noted, when cable television was in its heyday, when the utopias of media democracy and community access were still part of an overall vision for social change. 4 At the encouragement of filmmaker and video artist John Greyson who convinced him to turn away from graduate studies in film and toward video production instead, Fung produced his first videotape, Orientations in 1984, which extended the work he was doing with the community group, Gay Asians Toronto. In the opening shot of the tape, a young, smiling Fung donning large glasses and sporty mustache, appears in a head-on mirror reflection directing videographer and mentor, Greyson, who had promised his technical support as a condition of his initial encouragement. (This same shot appears on a video monitor at the beginning of Fighting Chance.) Like several other tapes that would come to constitute the social activist documentary strand of Fung’s video repertoire (these include Fighting Chance, Out of the Blue, and Safe Place: A Videotape for Refugee Rights in Canada [co-directed with Peter Steven]), Orientations is mostly comprised of interviews with young Asian lesbians and gay men, who frankly discuss first sexual experiences, coming out, their encounters with racism and homophobia, and finding community. Like these other documentaries, Orientations already attests to Fung’s remarkable skills as an interviewer, a testament to how his self-reflexiveness, compassion and respect have effectively enabled him to garner candid, and often extraordinary anecdotes, insights and knowledge from his interview subjects.
In the same year Fung directed Orientations, he also joined the Development Education Centre (DEC) Film and Video distribution collective, and assisted in programming the first anti-racism film festival in Toronto, Colour Positive. He would later have a formative role in developing events which were specifically aimed at opening access to production for emerging aboriginal artists and artists of colour within DEC and the short-lived Euclid Theatre. Fung describes:
I decided to put my energy to opening access to production and I got involved in ventures such as Shooting the System , a conference for emerging film and video makers of Native, African, Asian and Latin American backgrounds. I later programmed Race to the Screen , a conference and festival that focused on the politics of representation in film and video….The idea was to pass on information about and develop a critical understanding of the funding system; to provide a forum for discussion with the institutions; to allow successful makers such as Alanis Obomsawin, Renee Tajima and Claire Prieto to inspire and mentor and to provide a space for artists of colour and aboriginal artists to meet. 5
In addition to programming many single-venue events, 6 Fung was on the first board of directors for the Images Festival beginning in 1988, and has more recently participated in Inside Out Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival of Toronto. Related to this programming, he has also articulately contributed to developing critical discourses on independent media production by artists of colour and aboriginal producers both through his writing and teaching. “Colouring the Screen: Four Strategies in Anti-Racist Film and Video” reflects his deep commitments to the emancipatory function of image-making and its relation to education and anti-racism. In staying close to specific examples and strategies of his contemporaries, he affirms his implicit belief in the role of representation in social transformation, identifying various alternative representations of identity in independent media production. 7 His writings have also comprised of reviews of festivals, screenings, and individual films and tapes, as well as dialogues with artists, notably British artist, Isaac Julien, and Vancouver-based artists, Shani Mootoo and Paul Wong.
If this brief chronology constitutes the more apparent intersections of Fung’s video practice with organizing, programming and critical writing activities, traces of his various commitments can be observed in the videotapes as well, in obvious and oblique ways. The tapes themselves offer a way of identifying Fung’s numerous points of engagement. The recurrence of Toronto’s independent film and video community both behind and in front of Fung’s camera — John Greyson, Midi Onodera and Colin Campbell, among them — attests to the instrumental place Fung has had within the local Toronto film and video community. Covers from The Asianadian and reference to The Body Politic appear in Orientations, and again in Fighting Chance(1990), magazines to which he contributed in the 1970s and 80s. 8 While reflective of his own community affiliations, they are also made to signify the broader activist context within which his interview subjects exercise their social agency, and have contributed to social change through their cultural activities.
Fung’s contributions to gay activism are also integral to the multifaceted quality of his cultural practice. His video Chinese Characters (1985) explores Asian masculine sexuality through his visual interruption of lusty tableaux of all-white gay pornography, wherein he uses chroma-key techniques to quite literally insert his Asian male protagonist within these scenes. This early tape in some ways exemplifies the complex and layered intersection of gay sexuality, Asian identity and erotics of representation that he has engaged with. This investigation is furthered in a different manner in his 1991 essay, “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn” (originally presented as a conference paper), where Fung more studiously considers the privileging of whiteness in pornographic representation, and its imbedded affirmation of white racism.
The explicit multi-lingual safe sex message of the three-minute PSA Steam Clean (1990) — “Fuck Safely Use a Condom!” — a tape commissioned by the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, contributed to the remarkable body of AIDS activist video from the late 80s and early 90s. 9 This terrain is also the subject of Fighting Chance, which expands his work with the Gay Asian AIDS project in the late 1980s. As he describes in the opening of the tape:
In 1984 I made a videotape on lesbian and gay Asians in Toronto. It was a celebration. At a screening in New York, someone asked me why the tape said nothing about AIDS. I answered that it hadn’t yet become an issue for us. There were few cases in Canada, and of all the Asians I knew, nobody talked about being infected. I couldn’t say this today. [[CAN BE EDITED OUT IF QUOTE SEEMS TOO LONG Friends have died, more are HIV-positive. And while many of them are Asian, I’m struck by the silence and denial that persists within our communities. It’s as if we believe the racist myths that Asians have no sexuality. And the logic goes: if we have no sexuality, how can we have homosexuality, how can we have AIDS. Most gay and lesbian films and tapes on AIDS don’t include Asian voices. And in materials produced by the mainstream Asian community, it’s as if gay Asian people didn’t exist.]] We must find our voice in this epidemic. As I look back on memories of the early days, I can see how far we’ve come. But there are those who try to use this disease to shut the closet doors. Looking at these memories, I feel a pride we mustn’t lose. This tape doesn’t speak for all Asians. These friends have the support which enables to speak out. But there are many afraid even to seek help or information for fear of rejection, dismissal or deportation. When you watch this tape, think of their stories also.
Fung’s voiceover accompanies the tape’s revisitation of the opening scene of directorial initiation (with Greyson and a camera assistant), in his earlier Orientations. It also demarcates a crucial six-year period in the mid-1980s which saw the dramatic rise and impact of AIDS on the gay community and more widely, as well as the responsive cultural activism that grappled with the vexed representations that were contributing to the social construction of AIDS. This revisitation, I would suggest, is deceptively simple, for it underlines Fung’s increasingly evident style of orchestrating multiple discourses, and, effectively animating their intersections. For instance, Fung has described how Sea In the Blood (2000) commenced as a documentary tape on thalassemia, but soon became an emotionally complex work exploring his relationships to his sister and partner, in addition to the anemia-like disease of the blood, thalassemia and AIDS. The tape is more apparently concerned with Fung’s sister, Nan, and her affliction and eventual death from thalassemia. Yet his affiliations with gay activist networks can be gleaned when longtime partner and AIDS activist, Tim McCaskell, is seen on broadcast television announcing the ‘official activist opening’ of the otherwise mainstream International AIDS Conference in Montréal in 1989. In a more oblique way, there is a “plurality” of commitments in the tape’s subject matter, but this plurality is also apparent in the range of representational modes that Fung has engaged throughout his videotapes. In the plural, then, manifested as stylistic, representational strategy.
The quality of multiplying and amplifying points of intersection is perhaps most apparent across the trilogy-like family romance, The Way to My Father’s Village (1988), My Mother’s Place (1990), and Sea in the Blood, where seemingly personal points of departure are rapidly made to engage numerous social and cultural circuits of meaning. This trilogy stylistically differs from the distinctive group of tapes that I have cast as social documentary. In this “trilogy,” Fung mingles talking head interviews with found Super-8 footage, and documents his pilgrimages on home-video and in photographs, which he narrates with intimate, reflective voiceovers. What emerges is a distinctive and radical post-colonial visual poetics that intersperses personal circumstance with the more public, if sometimes repressed conditions of colonial histories. In writing of the “queer hybridity” of My Mother’s Place, José Esteban Munoz has compellingly characterized the subjective complexity of this tape as autoethnographic performance (see Munoz’s essay in this volume). There are additionally the possibilities of representation and its limits that haunt Fung’s poetic visual forms, limits that seem to have drawn him to move along various formal and affective registers simultaneously.
Sea in the Blood most seamlessly captures these visual poetics, but there is an earlier example that is concisely illustrative. In the last few minutes of The Way to My Father’s Village, a hand-held video image pans across a river and buildings in Shanghai, as Fung’s voiceover tells us that just off to the left, there is a large garden that we cannot see.
By the way, you can’t see it, but to the left, there’s a park here in Shanghai, it was built by the Chinese, but at a time when the city was ruled as concessions to the French, the British, and the Americans.
There was a sign here, it read: “No dogs or Chinese allowed.” My sister had read about it in The Crippled Tree. She’s dead now. Today tourists take pictures, or people practice tai chi. And in the autumn mists you can see that there are flowers in bloom.
There is much to unravel, here, but let us begin by noting its placement in a section entitled “Travel Logs.” In this scene, Fung asks us to imagine a park situated just outside the frame, a site we cannot see. This disjuncture between voice and image contributes to a momentum in this sequence about the inadequacy of representation, more particularly, here, the inadequacy of representations for Fung in encountering China. 10 For what he asks us to imagine in this visually unrepresented park in Shanghai, are two temporal moments: a historical time in China when dogs and Chinese were banished from the park, and the present, where tourists roam, tai chi is regularly practiced and flowers bloom in autumn. The first scene is in some ways, unrepresentable (how do you represent racial exclusion, if not by the “No dogs or Chinese allowed” sign itself?). The second scene is almost banal. Fung excludes both images, but evokes much through their contrast in his words.
In a tape that otherwise carries some of the earnestness of a period of identity politics made manifest in much artistic work, a phase that saw much ancestral revisitation and cultural retrieval, the tape becomes progressively about delimitations, about a field of discourses on China within which Fung finds himself adrift. Set against contemporary travel footage shot on video, Fung’s voiceover in this scene is interspersed amongst historic textual quotations from those who visited China from the West: the 13th century Venetian trader and explorer, Marco Polo; 16th century missionary, Matteo Ricci; and 19th century British journalist, George Wright Cooke. (There are also quotations from political discourses published in the communist People’s Canada Daily News, and from linguist and sinologist, Paul Cheung (situated in Downsview, Ontario), while the French semiotician, Roland Barthes, is cited from his essay, “Well, and China?”) So, in this pilgrimage to his father’s village (where in the confusion of linguistic translations and familial negotiatiations he will forget to ask which house was his father’s birthplace), what emerges is not the personal satisfaction of an emotional return, but the chaos of a field of discourses around and about China within which Fung’s tape is ultimately also set afloat.
In this brief scene, we further glimpse into Fung’s sibling relations as he speaks of his sister’s reading of the history of China in Han Suyin’s The Crippled Tree, and also learn, that Nan is now dead. She is the elusive subject of the later Sea in the Blood, elusive especially because of Fung’s own absence at her deathbed when she had repeatedly asked for him (this emotional koan that drives much of the tape). This foreshadows (in an almost inverse way to how the opening scene of Fighting Chance looks back at Orientations, or how Fung asks us to consider those not interviewed in this tape), the fascinating ways in which personal recording devices of Super-8 and video contribute to the production of memory and affect. In light of the Super-8 home movies that permeate these three tapes, they make quite visible both the immediately post-colonial style of 1960’s Trinidad, but also, reflections that might not otherwise exist were it not for these triggers of representation. Like the more explicitly activist strand of Fung’s video practice, this is a connectedness between Fung and the materiality of video: how archival images may tangibly inspire affect and reflection, and how video — with its ability to capture stories, document, insert — enables social transformation through its active production of alternative representations.
Richard Fung, Video artist and cultural critic
“I first saw Toronto from the back seat of a station wagon where I’d fallen asleep on the long drive from New York. I opened my eyes and glimpsed the sky through a spider’s web of black lines. I now appreciate how our overhead cables give the city a unique texture while keeping us mobile and connected to each other and a wider world.”
(Photo by Giulio Muratori)
Richard Fung is a Trinidad-born, Toronto-based video artist and cultural critic whose work deals with the intersection of race and queer sexuality, and with issues of post-colonialism, diaspora, and family. His award-winning tapes, which include My Mother’s Place (1990), Sea in the Blood (2000) and Islands (2002), have been widely screened and collected internationally, and broadcast across North America. His essays have been published in numerous journals and anthologies, including his famous “Looking for My Penis: The Eroticized Asian in Gay Video Porn,” in How Do I Look? ed. Bad Object-Choices (1991). A former Rockefeller Fellow at the Center for Media, Culture and History at New York University and winner of the Bell Canada Award for outstanding achievement in video art, he teaches at the Ontario College of Art and Design.
“My videos arise from questions that tickle or irritate me. They are conceptual or aesthetic knots that I want to unravel. Making a video gives me the chance to better understand them. While there may be many questions, there are seldom conclusions in my work.
I got my first job after art school in community television. It was the golden era of that experiment and it shaped my orientation to the medium: giving voice to issues and ideas not in the mainstream of cinema or television; an attention to spectatorship and audience; and a partiality towards the interview. Being ethnically Chinese, from the Caribbean, and gay also induced a self-conscious relationship to the moving image-my reality was seldom reflected on screen.
Today I feel less of a burden to represent “my” communities, as the pool of film and videomakers is more diverse. But even so, commercial imperatives, creative myopia and political narrow-mindedness increasingly combine to limit the perspectives, stories and aesthetic forms available to us through mass media. And for a whole other set of reasons art galleries, where many exciting ideas find a home, are still not as culturally diverse as they might be.
Despite our obvious political and class hierarchies, Toronto is a pretty much a horizontal city: one of neighbourhoods and communities of affinity. Our art scene is characterized by cooperation rather than competition. This is in no small part due to peer-reviewed, arms-length public funding for the arts in Canada. This has been the best way to encourage a range of practices and practitioners. I would not have a career without it.”
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