Richard Fung on: experience, homonationalism, and equity

Richard Fung is a video artist who has taught, lectured, and exhibited extensively; currently, he is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Art at OCAD U, focusing on contemporary issues, video for artists, and thesis. He is also a recipient of a major Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight grant, for his project RE:ORIENTATIONS.

SITE-SPECIFIC: You are revisiting Orientations: Lesbian and Gay Asians with 30 years of art-making, activism, teaching, and research under your belt.  How will your experience since the initial documentary impact this project – both technically, and in terms of theory and content?

RICHARD FUNG: A lot has changed since Orientations was shot in 1984. VHS was still relatively new and I edited it myself on a very simple cut-only console.  HIV was only identified in the mid-80s and sexual orientation would only be added as a grounds for prohibited discrimination to the Ontario Human Rights Code two years later. Queer theory was not yet invented and activism was grassroots; today a lot of discussion on gender and sexuality has migrated into the university. Indeed, Orientations was supported by a small grant from the Lesbian and Gay Community Appeal (now Community One Foundation), whereas ReOrientations is well funded by the national academic funding agency.  So the institutional and legal situations with regard to LGBT issues are quite distinct.

The community was also not nearly as racially and culturally diverse in the mid-80s. Orientations interviews the first generation of lesbian and gay activists of colour; trans issues were not yet central to the politics as they are today. At the same time, my graduate research assistants have just finished the first phase of pre-interviews with a current generation of activists and cultural producers, and they identify racism as central to their experience. While the state has made strides toward eliminating homophobia and transphobia, we are still dealing with racial profiling of black men by police, the subject of my documentary Out of The Blue in 1991. So an understanding of intersectionality is key: discrimination based on sex, race, class and sexuality do not operate independently of one another. Racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism are still present despite the formal protections, and there is greater poverty in Toronto and it is increasingly racialized. So there are continuities as well as shifts, and this is the focus of the project: to identify what has got us to where we are and how to map a better future.

S: You have mentioned that worrying developments in the role of rights in north-south politics have led you to revisit this project.  Can you speak more about [how RE:ORIENTATIONS explores] the role of rights in a transnational context?

F: There were differences among activists even before the 1969 Stonewall riots, which generally are taken to mark the beginning of the modern gay liberation movement. But these fissures became more obvious when those advocating civil rights in the United States placed their focus on same sex marriage and the right to join the military. Early gay liberation inherited a lot of the language and the ideas from Third World anti-colonial and anti-imperialist national liberation movements as well as the civil rights and black liberation struggles of the 1960s and 70s. It was also influenced by feminism and sexual liberation. Gay liberation saw itself as radical. Post AIDS, however, there was a conservative cultural trend in gay discourse, and this newly dominant direction was all about becoming good citizens and assimilating into the mainstream of domesticity and consumption. US scholar Lisa Duggan critiqued this trend as homonormativity, and in the wake of 9/11 Jaspir Puar coined the term “homonationalism” to describe the collusive relationship between this gay rights stance and racism against Muslims and brown bodies within the US, and the advancement of US economic and military interests in the global arena.

In Canada we can see homonationalism play out in the way that the Canadian government led by a Conservative Party that consistently opposed gay rights up to and including same sex marriage, yet is now using gay rights to chastise countries such as Iran and Uganda and to justify uncritical support for Israeli policies. This stance is mirrored by countries such as Russia and Uganda whose politicians harness homophobia to nationalist platforms to distinguish themselves from the West or to claim resistance to neo-colonialism and imperialism—Uganda is particularly ironic since the sodomy laws were introduced under British colonialism and the anti-gay campaigns are underwritten and in some ways scripted by American Christian evangelicals. So lesbian, gay and trans rights are being appropriated and deployed in new cold wars. There is also a phenomenon labeled “pinkwashing,” and a poster for, which promotes Alberta’s Tar Sands, contrasts “Conflict Oil” from Iran, illustrated by an photo of two young men supposedly hung for being gay (Iran claims they were charged for rape), and “Ethical Oil” from Canada, illustrated by a close-up of two men wearing rainbow bracelets holding hands. The Iran photos bear the caption “Persecution,” the Canadian side “Pride.”

S: In the past, you have spoken about grappling with whether or not you considered your practice ‘artistic’, since your work was strongly influenced by social movements of the time. Have you seen a rise in arts-based methods (like those employed in participatory action research) to advocate for social change, as impacting the landscape of art & design? How so? And how do you think this is received by mainstream art & design communities?

F: ReOrientations is planned as a documentary feature film, with all that implies; however, my roots after graduating from art school are in community media and so I’m interested in extra-institutional contexts as well as art and activism. The community art movement has always been regarded with ambivalence by the mainstream of the art world, despite longstanding careers, organizations and funding streams. But in the last decades, new technologies and an increasing interest in relational aesthetics and new social practice has meant validation for a drift out of the black box and the white cube. This migration isn’t new, of course, but there is a particular momentum both in practice and theory. At the same time, there is a growing among traditional academics in how artists work, and increasing collaborations among artists and social and environmental justice activists, something that hit a high during the AIDS movement.

S: What is the role of creativity and imagination in advancing equity?

F: It’s hard to speak in the abstract, but advancing anything requires goals and strategies, and imagination and creativity are central to this task. Coupled with these two I’d add criticality, as evaluation and re-evaluation of these imagined goals and strategies are supremely important to avoid mistakes.

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