‘Outsize, empty, mute Asians’: ‘Virtually Asian’ video essay critiques portrayals of Asians in popular sci-fi

Astria Suparak Virtually Asian

A video essay by artist Astria Suparak offers a visual critique of sci-fi and speculative fiction films that use Asian cultures as a backdrop and Asian people as props. 

According to the creators, the project was developed to examine “how white science-fiction filmmakers fill the backgrounds of their futuristic worlds with hollow Asian figures — in the form of video and holographic advertisements — while the main cast (if not the entirety of their fictional universe’s population) is devoid of actual Asian people.

Virtually Asian by Astria Suparak (English subtitles) from Berkeley Art Center on Vimeo.

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Scenes from wildly successful sci-fi films such as “Blade Runner,” “Ghost in the Shell” and “Minority Report” were used to illustrate how Asian aesthetics are used as props for futuristic cities while white characters and stories are centered. 

In the opening of the video essay, a 1960s Chinese pop song set to a hip-hop beat— the music of Vietnamese French musician Onra — plays merrily in the background as a narrator with a soft tone reassures movie directors sarcastically: “If you neglected to cast Asian people in your movie, don’t worry! You can fix it later in CGI. Fill the screen with outsize, empty, mute Asians.” 

Astria Suparak Virtually Asian

The video essay fits into a broader conversation about techno-Orientalism, a term first coined in a 2015 essay collection by David S. Roh, Betsy Huang and Greta A. Niu. The book “Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media” argues that sci-fi and speculative fiction combine Asian aesthetics with populations who are mostly robotic and hollow, projecting old harmful stereotypes into the future with Asians portrayed as “technologically advanced but intellectually primitive.” 

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“Virtually Asian” is Suparak’s first video and part of her larger project titled “Asian futures, without Asians.” The video essay was recently part of an exhibition about A.I. presented at Oxy Arts in Los Angeles, and the entire project will next have its Pacific Northwest premiere at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington on Nov. 30. 

Featured Image via Astria Suparak

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