I’m a Fish Out of Water, And Other Observations From Attending the 2018 AAAS Conference

The event was billed as “a dialogue with Asian American Scholars, Artists and Activists.” At least, that’s what the ticket built it up to be. However, by the time I made it to “Movement Building,” a premium ticketed special event scheduled as the first-day capper of the 2018 Association for Asian American Studies Conference, it was clear that I was duped. For one thing, the event took place a few short blocks from Conference headquarters in San Francisco’s tony Union Square — in a chic-chic yuppie bar-and-grill. Wading through a sea of happy hour millennials and tech company hipsters, I soon learned that, much to my chagrin, what I paid good money for was a glorified happy hour with a room full of neophyte activistas and academics who were far more concerned with getting their drank on than with sharing perspectives on mobilizing fellow APAs for the neo-conservative shit-storm that has overtaken the country. Soon enough, I concluded that the event was pointless and a waste of valuable money, and I excused myself to head back to my hotel room, stopping on my way to pick up a 2-for-1 special at a Burger King somewhere out on far sketchier Market Street.

For me and the folks at Visual Communications, the trip up to AAAS — the first such visit by Visual Communications as an organization — had a dual purpose: to re-introduce conference-goers to Visual Communications and its filmography of award-winning and influential films; and to announce the arrival of a long-planned photographic exhibit charting the development of Asian Pacific American movement-building through images contained within VC’s own in-house repository, the Asian Pacific American Photographic Archive. To those ends, we procured tabling space in the conference’s vendors’ space and set up a selection of DVDs for sale as well as specially-curated selection of info sheets on VC and its holdings. On this occasion, we were blessed to share our table space with the recently-formed Asian American Documentary Network (A-DOC), whose members spoke on several conference panels and screened their works in the makeshift screening space in the hotel’s ballroom. Over the course of three days, the joint Visual Communications/A-DOC table engaged new and familiar audiences, sold DVDs, and created a space for independent APA cinema and social activism unique from the more literary offerings of just about all the other info tables in the vendors’ space.

Something for everyone: Past VCer and current AAS instructor Lewis Kawahara (right) was just one of several lucky winners of a VC-branded USB flash drive loaded with instructional .MPEG copies of the “Visual Communications Classics” and copy of our online product catalog.

Because of the sprawling nature of the conference itself, I didn’t dare venture far from our info table, and instead wandered the vendors’ space to learn more about the various university presses and booksellers. The conference program packed a whopping 250 seminars, discussions, workshops, and plenary sessions into its schedule, making it impossible to attend a critical mass of panels and not become overwhelmed with the sheer volume of topics that were addressed during the conference. As it turned out, the motives for the many seminar topics weren’t entirely educational, much less activist: as the conference was as much an informal job fair as it was an academic gathering place, many of the presentations turned out to be impromptu job interviews, with professors gauging the presenters’ level of delivery as much as the content of their papers.

Probably because of my disinterest in the rigors and decorum of ethnic academia, I’ve always regarded gatherings as the Association for Asian American Studies with a certain level of disdain. It’s probably why I’ve never previously attended one of these functions. And because it operates firmly within a grassroots community ecosystem, Visual Communications has likewise never actually participated in AAAS despite being borne from the ethnic studies environment that I found myself enveloped in.

Fortunately for me, I made sure to invite some select company. Because the conference was taking place in San Francisco (the Association pulled out of its original destination of Nashville, TN; purportedly, one-third its membership are employees of the University of California, which prohibits state monies spent for travel and lodging to states with anti-LGBT laws on its books), I hit up some close friends who were amenable to sitting in with me while manning the VC/A-DOC table. Their presence proved a comfort to my soul, as I was able to catch up with them all and chit-chatted around social-purpose filmmaking in the education and ethnic studies spheres.

On Day One, I interview two experimental documentary filmmakers whose works I’ve admired for a long time: Anita Chang and Valerie Soe. Both of them came fresh from an early-morning panel, “Reinforcing and Reimaging Fierce Alliances: A Conversation Between Asian American Filmmakers and Educators” that seemed to include just about everybody who is considered “important” in APA non-fiction filmmaking.

Here’s my chat with Anita, fresh from her participation on the Day One morning panel, “Reinforcing and Reimagining Fierce Alliances: A Conversation Between Asian American Filmmakers and Educators”:


And just before lunch, Val-Gal (also a participant on the “Reinforcing and Reimagining Fierce Alliances” panel) came by to chat. Due to a set of dying batteries, my audio recorder was konking out, and so this interview came in three parts. Somehow, we were able to stay coherent:


Later on Day One, none other than Visual Communications co-founder Eddie Wong dropped in to share his thoughts on APA cinema and its impact as a teaching as well as advocacy tool. Evidently, Eddie rolls deep, as he was joined by fellow VC lifers Karen Ishizuka and Franklin Odo:


Karen had recently published a book recounting the Asian American activist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Serve The People. Old-school VCers will know Franklin from his contribution to the organization, as he edited and helped produce VC’s very first print publication, the 1976 picture book In Movement: A Pictorial History of Asian America.

Because he had some prior engagements on Day Two, Eddie had to bag out of hanging out at our table Friday morning. No worries, because my last guest, UCI professor, musician and writer Christine Bacareza Balance stopped by to chat it up:


So, I’m not exactly sure of what to make of my extended weekend up in the Bay Area Playahz Club. As an entity unto itself, the Association for Asian American Studies is clearly some kind of academic frat/sorority, and the Conference itself is just as clearly a convention. As for worthwhile calls-to-action, there essentially were none, and based on my sour experience attending, then enduring, the special event “Movement Building: A Dialogue with Asian American Scholars, Artists and Activists” that probably had good intentions (in all fairness, the event organizer took ill just days before the Conference, leaving a couple of co-horts to pinch-hit for her), I left feeling gypped for throwing good money at what essentially became nothing more than a happy-hour pool. And yah, in case you were wondering, the food wasn’t even all that. Thank gawd, then, for Burger King.

Would I attend one of these conventions again? I know I may be contradicting myself by admitting this, but the answer would be: yes, in a heartbeat. If I came away with nothing else, the sense that today’s academics and budding activistas need to engage with the communities they study is as urgent as ever. And just as crucial for the next generation of folks is the realization that much — so much — can be learned and activated just by revisiting the sizeable visual footprints left for us all by the “cowboys” and free-spirits who built Visual Communications, Third World Newsreel, DCTV, the old National Asian American Telecommunications Association, Asian CineVision, and other community-based media arts organizations. The productions and policies produced by the peeps who worked, played, struggled, and strived at these and other places served as an agent of “wokeness” for generations of activists and community peoples. I’m thinking, re-activating them and dressing them up for a newer generation is a vital part of nurturing the next generation. And so, budgets willings, I will continue to go — to attend, to reactivate, to inspire, to #reprazent. Over and out!

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