History-informed futures

Angela Chan interviews Beatrice Glow. Published as part of Vector 293 exploring Chinese SF.

Artist-researcher Beatrice Glow’s extensive commitment to public history shapes her work across social-botanical history, dispossession, enslavement, migrations and extractive economies. Building long term projects directly with communities, Beatrice maps complexly interconnected colonial histories through grounded investigations and emerging technologies. Currently on a residency, Beatrice chats from Singapore with Angela Chan in the UK about her work and science fiction’s capacity to tell truthful histories and envision just futures together. 

Clay Pipe, Smoke Trails Series, 2021, Beatrice Glow, VR Sculpture. The reference image is from an obsolete 2 dollar bank note from the Timber Cutter’s Bank, Savannah, Georgia, United States, and features a smiling Black woman carrying a child and carrying tobacco leaves in her apron.

AC: Hello Beatrice, thank you for calling with me. Given the array of your practice, how would you like to describe yourself as a practitioner and what are the key themes that guide your outlook and activities? 

BG: It’s constantly going through evolutions, and at the moment, I think of myself as a multidisciplinary artist-researcher in service of public history. I activate many different mediums across art, from sculptural installations to video, to emerging technologies, and all of that with the intent to meet my audience where they are. Public engagement is an important factor in my practice, and for the art, to shift a dominant narrative.

AC: I first experienced your work through your solo exhibition Forts and Flowers (2019) at Taipei Contemporary Art Center, which is part of the larger community-centred project Rhunhattan: A Tale of Two Islands (2016 – ongoing). That was my entry point into the many extended investigations you sensitively spend time with. They often focus on everyday elements of migration, extraction and globalisation, such as etymology, perfumes, tableware, nutmeg, architecture. How did you begin mapping these complex and multiple histories of colonisations, and as aligned with indigenous land sovereignty and climate justice?

BG: I’m glad you got something out of that exhibition, because it was a small attempt at trying to bring that story to my ancestral homeland in terms of the larger history that ties together the different migration flows, the circulation of people, goods, cultures between Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Great Ocean in between. 

Place is very important to me in how we shape ourselves and reflect on who we are through lived experiences. Growing up in North America, with family in South America, and parents from Taiwan, I’ve always had in mind how my family’s experiences are different by place. After university I had an amazing opportunity in receiving a Fulbright grant, and I moved to Peru, where there is the largest Asian Latin American population. The year before that, I had been to Argentina for a few months to meet my family, and that really piqued my interest in the different ways in which we experience belonging and feeling safe as racialised people in this world. My uncle, whom I met there, seemed very much not to have been in a safe place for most of his experience; he slept with a pistol under his pillow. They went through the saqueo in the early 2000s in Argentina so they had a very different idea of what it means to be a racialised minority. It made me interested in this side of history, and I was also surprised about the way I was treated as a romanticised ethnic Other. Experiencing humorous yet strange questions/encounters or microaggressions, I guess, led into my early development as an artist: just trying to poke fun but ask questions around identity and perception, and how we show up as racialised bodies. 

So in Peru, I wanted to look at the longer history of Asian presence in South America, and that brought me to so many homes of people with diasporic histories. I visited many cemeteries, for records of Japanese and Chinese labourers, which uncovered difficult histories. I also traced the railroads from Lima city all the way up to the Andes. I finally took a boat ride in Iquitos, which is a city in a jungle in the Amazonian river basin, looking for the village called Chino, which on a basic level means Chinese. But really the word Chino is an imaginary word to me: it has many definitions in Spanish, the colloquial language and its slang. Meaning orange in Puerto Rico, it can also mean an indigenous person in Central America, 50 cents in Peru, or cannabis, in reference to squinty eyes one has after smoking. So I was looking for Chino in its plethora of meanings. When I finally arrived, they said I was the first chinita to arrive, but I don’t identify as Chinese. I was placed under that umbrella, and I was placed to think about how we are read. 

That experience also allowed me as a young person to visit the Guano Islands where Chinese ‘coolies’ were forced to do labour, and where the first railroads in Latin America were built to transport the guano on these islands. These horrific places that inflicted violence on these people, and trying to understand that history, also allowed me to see the complexities of where my privileges were, and where my disadvantages were. I met teachers who were of indigenous and mixed race ancestry, white Peruvians, and Afro-Peruvians who also have Chinese ancestry that’s not so much documented, which informed what it means for me to be a visibly racialised settler in South America.   

That set the scene for me, regarding how we tell important stories, and what the artist’s role is in recovering stories that are not told. A lot of people had entrusted me with the responsibility, telling me I’m the first person to ask them these questions and allowed me to do their interviews and they shared their family photos. It was a gift that I could stay for two years doing this work with people. When I travelled back to the US, I thought about the stories that slip through the gaps in the archives, and one of the main ones was the pre-Columbian connection between Asia and the Americas, which signaled to me the Great Ocean, known also as the Pacific. There’s one founding myth in the northern coastal region of Peru, of Señor del Naylamp who arrived on a boat, and he had almond-shaped eyes, and many concubines and ‘brought civilisation.’ There are many archaeological references to this character, and people were wanting to tell me that our ancestral heritages are related, like in these stories. Such folklore and artwork allow for more speculative understandings of history than the archives of history books. It made me think about the Great Ocean, and growing up in California, my mother’s brother would say if you look out to the west, you’ll see Taiwan. This sparked my imagination that despite geographical differences, you’re always connected to a place. 

I’m presently on a residency, and I’m in the Malay archipelago that’s a homeland of many Austronesian peoples, and their history is under-discussed in the world. The general consensus in linguistic research, which some contest, is that Austronesian peoples set sail from Taiwan around five to six thousand years ago, and people speak Austronesian languages across Taiwan, Aotearoa, Madagascar, Hawaii, Indonesia, Philippines, Rapa Nui, just to name a few. So it’s a very beautiful story about human connection that’s also seen in certain foods of the Pacific that are found in the Andes. Those are the stories I’m interested in about Asia and the Americas, in which history doesn’t begin with Columbus; it’s an anti-colonial narrative I began following then, even if I didn’t realise this at my younger age. So you see, I’m mapping a very big map! 

Fast forward many years later, I had a fellowship as a visiting scholar in New York City, and residence in the Asian/Pacific/American (A/P/A) Institute at NYU. I was invited to think through various things and be supportive of the incoming Hōkūle’a, a Polynesian double-hulled canoe that was circumventing the waters as part of a cultural revitalisation around the world to spread the message of mālama honua, meaning to care for Mother Earth from an indigenous environmental stewardship perspective. In 2016, the Hōkūle’a was arriving in NYC and people didn’t really know how to get New Yorkers ready for such an important delegation, and what the proper cultural protocols were. Furthermore, the Hōkūle’a stewards asked to be welcomed and greeted first by the original peoples of the island. That was a very painful moment for many people to realise how little many of us knew, or had made friends or kinship with the indigenous Lenape/Lunaape/Lunaapeew peoples of New York, and that many of us never asked such a question. 

At the same time, I was researching the spice trade, with interests in the early modern period connections that made Asia, the Americas and Europe. In a book, I read a story about Manaháhtaan, Indigenous Manhattan. In 1667, the Dutch traded Manaháhtaan for a spice island that was a kingdom in what’s now known as Indonesia. The island, Rhun, sits in the archipelago of the Banda Islands, and was the first English colony. It produced nutmeg, leading the Dutch to battle them over it. I was interested in multiple histories and the connections between New York and this island that has Austronesian ties, that helped me feel anchored in its history of circulations. 

The Bandanese, along with others in the Southeast Asian region, have a very sophisticated history of navigation that seemed to resonate with the Hōkūle’a. For its welcoming, I collaborated with the A/P/A Institute to create the Wayfinding Project (2016), which is part augmented reality (AR) lab with an installation and exhibition. Students can use the space as a classroom and use the AR apps installed on tablets to see the updated information, without taking up the physical space too much. I also drew a lot of maps, thinking about different perspectives on what map-making means; for example, one of them was Pacific-centric, and another was a colonial era map where New Amsterdam appears in Northeast America, and when you scan it, you would see a different vision of the island, of Manaháhtaan, and you’d be able to wayfind yourself there. Through these multi-processes you could really look at where you are, and honour the Pacific seafaring memories. 

I started building relations with native culture bearers in the region, and those in the diaspora to group together the fragmented histories of forced migrations, diaspora, genocidal histories of the Northeastern America, New York and New Jersey area in particular. At the same time A/P/A was generous and understanding in the way that I wanted to connect that shared history and cultural heritage with the Bandanese people. They supported my first research travel to the Banda, and I called the project Rhunhattan: The Tale of Two Islands (2016 – ongoing). It’s a kind of worlding, in the sense of building the connections that haven’t been discussed, and asking people, who were arbitrarily joined by a piece of treaty paper that exchanged their homeland islands, to be a part of this, if they would like. It’s an ongoing process that I find very empowering, yet also difficult. This year is the 400th year since the genocide of the Bandanese people under the Dutch East India Company, who employed Japanese mercenaries to carry out the executions of the Banda Islands’ leaders. They killed 15,000 people — that’s 90% of the local population — in the pursuit of domination of the nutmeg trade in 1621. With many colleagues, we came together to build the historical connections across Indonesia, North America and the Netherlands. We organized a Banda Working Group to form a whole range of online events, from March to May 2021, holding space and commemorating, by bringing cultural bearers, public historians, artists and scholars together to have discussions, and importantly, to encourage public memory. 

Rhunhattan: A Tale of Two Islands, 2017, equirectangular image, Beatrice Glow and Alexandre Girardeau.

There are many things, from sovereignty to the histories of the Lenape/Lunaape/Lunaapeew people, that started to surface in more mainstream conversations around the same time I started to connect the experiences and histories of the Bandanese and the Lunaape/Lenape/Lunaapeew. That mapped together a very intensely and intimately researched network of stories, that I don’t try to simplify, as it’s so layered. I share selective parts of it depending on the invited platforms and their contexts, but occasionally I do also map out the full complexity of it like this now with you, because it deserves that space. Healing requires the long term commitment.   

AC: Throughout your work, the speculative worldbuilding is very much rooted in forefronting truths that colonial expansions sought to erase. In the work that you co-labour with communities, what are some of the artistic tools and technologies that shape its interactivity in this process of healing histories and building just futures?

BG: I think a big part of our inability to be free is the suppression of our imagination. I’m really lucky to be trusted with the opportunities to work with younger people these days, and I really see it’s so important to nurture that. A lot of them want to tell their stories, but they have not been encouraged to do so for most of their lives. Thinking about the title of my workshop, called ‘Un-and Re- Worlding with VR sculpting,’ they’re doing collection-based research and looking at site-specific histories, and at the same time, they’re learning how to do virtual reality sculpting. They form teams to collaborate among themselves and it’s fun to see them play together, but also question things in ways they’ve never done before, with the conceptual tools and the readings that I bring. It’s been quite fulfilling: right now I’m doing it in Singapore, and I really enjoy the conversations I have with my students. 

When I was just starting this process at the A/P/A Institute at NYU, I was thinking together with my partner, Alexandre Girardeau, a creative technologist and a communications science theorist, about what we could do with the emerging technologies of that moment. It was 2015 and VR was still quite new. What if we could tell stories and use this as a tool to invite cultural bearers that we have the honour to work with, to tell their own stories in the space? This would create an oral histories archive, rather than an event or finished product, and we saw it as a platform that could continue to develop. We began to create workshops with some elders who were visiting as a delegation in town, and some agreed to participate, including the Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, George Stonefish, and later on Brent Stonefish and his son Xander Stonefish. Chief Mann told stories that grounded us to the place where we are, Manahatta, and described his visions of what it means to be a contemporary indigenous person, living in the tri-state area, and seeing his ancestors as always being present when he walks down Broadway. This famous street in New York City is also part of a complex network of pathways that the original peoples of the island used as highways that connected to the greater northeastern region. He shared powerful histories and stories like this, and is a huge inspiration and teacher to me, amongst many others. Some conversations can be heavy. We invite elders to critique our work and say what they want out of this experience. My partner and I see ourselves as the community facilitators of dialogues, interpreting them into visions. 

We eventually made these volumetric scans with Chief Mann, 180 degree captures that allowed people to meet him in the space with the headset. It’s quite a spiritual space, he’s a pixelated presence and talking to you, invoking the land, water, constellations and ancestors. When asked who this VR piece is for, he said that first and foremost it’s for the future generations of indigenous youth, but also the general people in New York, or those who have a relationship to the island and would maybe like to know more for a deeper understanding. He hopes that future generations can meet their ancestors in this experience. 

Mannahatta VR (v. 2019) – Chief Vincent Mann of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation, Turtle Clan Chief, on Broadway, Interactive virtual reality experience.

So it has this speculative futures fictioning, in the sense that it’s from a vision of peoples who have always been told that they belong in the past, yet they proclaim that their people will continue to be here. They envision a world where their values continue to guide us forward, and no matter the environmental racism they experience, they will continue to speak about it, to power and to truth. They want that to be shaped by their vision of what a safe, clean, healthy future looks like. We created a possible pre-colonial reality, but it’s also a speculative future where you can see the native plants reclaiming the city in a way that makes it healthy and beautiful. These narratives are guided by continuing dialogues with community members. I think a lot of it for the elders is strategic, with VR’s potential to get the younger people in the community excited to talk about their history using “cutting edge” technology, despite its gimmicks. It’s also complex because of the technology’s origins in military development. Once again, how can this anti-colonial vision help to shift the gaze, to tell other kinds of narratives that do not replicate trauma and violence? I was also hoping to engage with different ways we can tell stories through a process that involves envisioning futures together.

AC: That sounds incredible! Extending on your use of virtual spaces, and building what I’d like to call ‘history-informed futures,’ would you like to talk about your current project Smoke Trails and how science fiction shapes its narrative? 

BG:Yes! Smoke Trails (2020-) is the working title for this. Starting with a project I did in Chile, called Aromérica Parfumeur (2016), I was looking at the social history of plants and the ways I can tell their stories through a fake perfume boutique. It invited significant community engagement into the process, with over 10,000 visitors, because it was in a shopping mall, where people aren’t expecting to see an art exhibition. It was also a shopping mall named after Amerigo Vespucci, the namesake of America. I played this into the foundational narratives of what we understand the Americas to be, and how it has relationships to the search for the spices of Asia and their aromatic experiences. These have propelled so many people to not only travel, but also to commit many atrocious massacres around the world, especially in regions like from where I am speaking to you now, an entrepot along  the Maritime Silk Road. 

In this experience, I talk about many plants, and I shine a light on nutmeg with the story of the Banda Islands, pepper, cacao … I play a lot on the words: eau de colón, so it’s cologne spelled as in Colón, meaning Columbus. Another was taboo, with tobacco. In these early stages, I was using smoke as a way to explore the foundational history of the US. Tobacco smoke is a very important native plant that led to the sustaining of the Jamestown settlement, and with its commercial success originating from the ‘discovery’ of the profitability of tobacco, the English Crown funded this as its first colony. I did some research on the imagery on old American  money, and tobacco appears on the note where Sir Walter Raleigh shows the English court how to smoke. When you think about money and its ties to empires and tobacco, one can say that empires were built on smoke. 

I was thinking about the etymology of the word “parfum” which means “through the smoke,” which led to focusing on smoke as the next step in my investigations into the social history of plants during the early-modern period.  I thought “smoke trails” would be an appropriate lynchpin for thinking through the postcolonial experience. The materiality of smoke, being something we can’t quite put our finger on, is the omnipresent feeling of the colonial histories; the oppressive ambience; the non-dit that you can’t say but is there hauntingly — and it’s all hard to grasp. Then I started to see the smoke everywhere: from the combusting engines of industrialisation; the vapours of trains that transformed our transportation and sense of space and time; the smoke stacks of factories and pollution, to bombings and military innovations, the gases within these smokes and burning forests. What we see in the media constantly are the imagery of war. I start with tobacco and move through these evolutions of different smokes, to finally think of the vape with its ashless smoke and its digital smoke signal. The vape is sanitized of the social history of the plant, it is artificial, and is very popular amongst  young people. It makes me think of smoke trails as this long historical arc of our civilisation, while remembering that tobacco is a sacred native plant. Here in Southeast Asia, I’m looking at incense with its sacred relationship between smoke and the divine. 

Aromérica Parfumeur 

Making all these narratives easier to follow, I created a science fictional story of a pseudo collection owned by a family, whose wealth was made through the Empire of Smoke. The idea is that the family scrubbed their real name from the internet, and we only know their financial institution as the Empire of Smoke. From the spice trade in Europe, specifically Padua in Italy to the East Coast of America, the fictional family’s branches are all embedded in these institutions of old money. I’m setting this in the near future, a rough 2040, when the climate catastrophe in the very possible future makes the Earth uninhabitable: we’ll have ceaseless pandemics, and there is social unrest. In this time, the family of the Empire of Smoke decide to liquidate most of their physical assets to relocate into a bunker, because Manhattan, as well as other places, is drowning. 

In the process, I’m making objects for their fake collection, and also writing an accompanying catalogue with someone who has written catalogues for the auction house Christie’s, so I’m having lots of fun! I’m doing virtual reality sculpting of bizarre and vulgar objects, and it feels very strange that fact and fiction are so intertwined here — the things I’m making are very possibly real. I’m writing a lot of didactics around them to tell the story of Smoke Trails. The objects range across the decorative arts, from perfume bottles shaped as grenades and made in delftware, and pipes and tobacco jars I’ve sculpted from the images on old American money. I also made a whiteamoor, a take on the blackamoor that often depicts racialised bodies in subservient positions on decorative arts pieces, like on a candelabra where the body would hold the candle. There’s a gold mask I made with a crown that’s medieval punk, I guess! These are the imagined types of strange objects that only the wealthy — this family are quadrillionaires by the way — would own. 

One pseudo-artifact I am making is a golden silk smoke parachute. In researching each object that I create speculative versions of, there’s such a rich history. With the parachute it connects to the history of military innovation. There’s also a term called the golden parachute, with which CEOs can attain a severance package if they leave a company. It’s the ultimate exit plan. In the “Smoke Trails” family, the young are always taught to have a golden parachute. But the parachute is also a children’s game, so I’m making a smaller version just big enough for five children to play. It’s golden with beautiful gold leaf silk thread from Kyoto with an embroidered print of tobacco, because tobacco in Chinese is called “golden silk smoke.” It’s the family’s nod to their heritage and how they made their money, whilst also teaching the children about their own history, and how to draw up an exit plan. It’s a fun object that such a wealthy family would definitely have! The balls I’m making for the parachute game are all depictions of shiny planets and moons, which the family are planning to colonise or create to continue their legacy. The more absurd you are, the more real it is and the more people think they want it. It’s the strangeness of the market. 

Whiteamoor Candelabra, 2020, 3D printed VR sculpture,
hand-painted details

I’m having fun with speculation and spontaneity in artistic creation, and it is unlike my work with communities, which has a different type of emotional demand and method. Smoke Trails contrasts to Manahatta VR: it tests the water to be as obscene as possible, which seems very appropriate to me in this moment of decadence and degradation. Billionaires have increased at least 40% of their net worth in the past year. We will soon have quadrillionaires, and I was thinking about how out of touch they are. I have produced a whole series of paintings of smoke, which in the narrative are the works of the family’s daughter, who’s an heiress and sort of Williamsburg hipster. An influence on Smoke Trails has been my nine-month exhibition run for my prints on silk of plants that changed the world, Spice Roots/Routes (2017). This was in the James B. Duke House, the mansion of the American Tobacco Company founder, that houses the NYU Institute of Fine Arts. It was modelled after the French Château Labottière, with marbles and decorative pieces shipped across the ocean, and it’s located on the Millionaire Row of Manhattan. That was a space in which I thought a lot about luxury, the decorative arts, and the darker underpinnings of smoke. I installed my prints of nutmeg and pepper in the smoking room, where the gentlemen would go to have their patriarchal smoke, make deals and socialise over a puff. There is also the lecture hall that used to be the ballroom, where my tobacco print was installed by the speaker’s lectern, as well as my military camouflage Afghan Poppy (the New Silk Road) print that points to the heroin trade and the invasion of Afghanistan. 

There’s a specific polished aesthetic to Smoke Trails, which is why using digital tools is more suitable. A lot of my prints on silk begin as hand drawings, collages and research, which I digitise for print before embroidering on it as a layered process. With VR sculpting, they are sometimes printed and there are also a lot of analog hand painting that happens afterward. Actually, maybe I’m losing my fingerprints because I work with my hands and sanding. This is also one of my sci-fi elements to the work, because machines can’t successfully read me. I’m thinking, “What happens to people with no fingerprints?” It’s to do with labour and the future of biometrics. Being speculative with this project, I’m imagining that this family’s new bunker has a state of the art odour-based biometric machine that determines who can enter, it reads you by your smell, and I extend on what these smoke stories would look like in the future. 

AC: What are other activities you’re currently spending time with?

BG: In much of my work as an artist, I channel my need for more agency and immediate action through organising work. I serve as the programme manager for the Public History Project, which arose from an intense debate in NYC about monuments, and the interlinking histories of dispossession and enslavement, in order to really understand climate justice. It’s a project that also looks at the intricacies of that, and so it’s a very big project that we’ll be doing public programming on. These include commemorating massacres that have happened in the region, where Lunaape/Lunaapeew/Lenape people’s land was built on. This is hard and heavy, but it helps us understand where we are, the enslaved peoples and migrants who were forced to work the land, and how our histories are connected. Additionally, with the Banda Working Group we are putting on Banda 1621-2021: International Roundtable Series to commemorate the impact of the genocide of 1621. 

I am also excited about an upcoming solo exhibition to be announced soon, which will further highlight these narratives that I feel are important for wider discussion in public spaces.  

AC: Beatrice Glow, thank you!

Beatrice Glow is a multidisciplinary artist in service of public history and just futures. Her artworks assemble the unseen, fragmented and yet entangled realities of dispossession, enslavement, migrations and extractive economies. Her solo exhibitions include Forts and Flowers, Taipei Contemporary Art Center, Taiwan, 2019, and Aromérica Parfumeur, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de Chile, 2016. She was also a participating artist in the Inaugural Honolulu Biennial, 2017. Her work has been supported by the Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University, and the US Fulbright Scholar Program, amongst others. Glow is teaching the module “Media Arts for Just Futures” while Visiting Artist-in-Residence at Yale-NUS College. beatriceglow.org
Angela Chan is a ‘creative climate change communicator,’ working as an independent curator, researcher and artist. She collaborates widely with artists, activists, authors and youth groups, exploring anti-colonial climate justice, geography and speculative fiction. Her research-based art includes video, participatory conversations and storytelling, to reconfigure power, climate knowledges and minoritised experiences. Angela’s current commissions with FACT, Estuary 2021 and Sonic Acts span climate framings, water scarcity, British explosives industry, and teargas as an environmental pollutant. Angela produces exhibitions and workshops as Worm: art + ecology. She co-founded the London Chinese Science Fiction Group and co-directs the London Science Fiction Research Community.

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