Diane Wong is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University–Newark and is an affiliate faculty of Global Urban Studies, American Studies, and Women's and Gender Studies. Her research and teaching interests include American politics, race and ethnicity, critical urban studies, comparative immigration, gender and sexuality, cultural and media studies, and community-rooted research. Her current book project, You Can’t Evict a Movement: Intergenerational Activism and Housing Justice in New York City, focuses on intergenerational resistance to gentrification in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Her work draws from a combination of methods, including ethnography, participatory mapping, archival research, augmented reality and oral-history interviews. Wong is currently co-guest editor of a special issue on "Asian American Abolition Feminisms" in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies.
A first-generation Chinese American born and raised in Flushing, Queens, Wong also is a socially engaged artist. Her multimedia exhibit "Homeward Bound: Global Intimacies in Converging Chinatowns," ran at the Pao Arts Center in Boston in 2019-2020. Wong is currently co-curator of Archive as Memorial: Documenting A/P/A Voices During Covid-19, an exhibition running through March 25 at the Storefront for Ideas (SFI), which repurposes an empty storefront (and former souvenir shop) in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood to house events, projects and more. The exhibit is an outgrowth of A/P/A Voices: Covid-19 Public Memory Project, a documentary and archival initiative started in March 2020 at NYU to document the COVID-19 pandemic and the myriad ways it has impacted Asian/Pacific/American communities in New York and beyond.
We sat down with Wong to learn more about the exhibition.
Tell us about your relationship with your co-curator (artist Tomie Arai) and the Asian/Pacific/American Institute (A/P/A) at NYU.
Tomie and I have been friends for years through our work with the Chinatown Art Brigade. We both have a prior relationship with A/P/A—Tomie was their first artist-in-residence, and I was a visiting scholar at the Institute several years ago. Our friendship with the staff and trust in their community collaborations made our decision to work with the A/P/A an easy one.
The exhibit is actually an outgrowth of an archival effort, yes?
Exactly. The A/P/A Covid-19 Public Memory Project archive is housed at the NYU Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives. We decided to create an exhibit to signal the culmination of the project, but there has been interest to continue to grow the collection. Archive as Memorial is one of the many lifeforms the A/P/A Voices Project has taken over the last three years—from a series of virtual programs to a public syllabus and improvised writing to annotated interviews and listening sessions to, recently, a published article in the Journal of Asian American Studies.
How did the exhibit space come together?
After we were awarded an Arts and Activism Grant from the Asian Women Giving Circle to support the exhibit, we had to secure a venue. We were approached by the Tamiment Library to showcase the collection on the NYU campus, and at the same time [the nonprofit organization] Immigrant Social Services in Manhattan Chinatown reached out to Tomie about curating an exhibit at their Storefront for Ideas—a former empty storefront converted into a space for the community. The archive takes on a new life when in the community, so we decided to move forward with the exhibit at Storefront for Ideas and, in the process, became the inaugural Community-Amplifiers-in-Residence (CAiR) at Immigrant Social Services.
And how did you decide on the exhibit content?
I am part of the core committee with Tomie Arai, Vivian Truong, Lena Sze and Laura Chen-Schultz. To decide on the content and themes for the exhibit, we then formed a curatorial committee that included project volunteers and reached out to narrators, artifact donors and community partners to secure items on loan. As we launched the project, volunteers from across the country joined our efforts in documentation, and we took a few months talking about how to develop care practices in memory work, how to honor the stories of narrators, and the pace of collaboration. I took on more of a curatorial role in the past year for the Archive as Memorial exhibit.
We’ve had immense interest from residents in the neighborhood, and some keep coming back.
There’s quite a dialog happening within the exhibit.
Yes. As part of the exhibit, you can see the materials in conversation with one another: the Auntie Sewing Squad mutual aid quilt next to Red Canary Song's installation honoring the labor of sex workers next to Chinatown Tenants Union rent-strike posters. The most challenging part of the process was figuring out how to repurpose the empty storefront into a gallery; we wanted to curate a space that felt familiar and safe while honoring what used to exist in the space.
How many communities outside New York City donated artifacts to A/P/A Voices and the exhibit?
The project spans across the country and includes the organizing work of Red Canary Song, Asian American Feminist Collective, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, and The W.O.W. Project in New York City; Khmer Girls in Action, California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, and Asian Pacific American Environmental Network in California; Freedom Inc. and Freedom Youth Squad in Wisconsin; and South Asian Americans Leading Together, Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, and Auntie Sewing Squad. Our narrators include Asian immigrant service providers, first responders, advocates for street vendors, sex workers, nail-salon workers, tenants fighting evictions, mutual-aid and food-pantry workers, poets, musicians, artists, students and activists. The digital artifacts include artwork, posters, statements, poetry, zines, videos, Instagram posts and COVID-19 toolkits contributed from across the country.
How’s the exhibit been going, and are you happy with the outcomes so far?
The response has been overwhelming. Initially, I was unsure if people would be ready to memorialize as we continue to live within the folds of the pandemic. But people have been so responsive, and we’ve had hundreds of students visit the exhibit as part of their classes. We’ve had immense interest from residents in the neighborhood, and some keep coming back. Cultural institutions across the country like the Japanese American National Museum have reached out about contributing items from the archive to their collections.
After the recent Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings, in California, we decided to put up a memorial on the storefront window where people could leave messages on sticky notes in remembrance. One visitor told me that she wasn't sure that she even needed a physical space to mourn until she stepped into the gallery and wrote a note to post on the window. That action was cathartic for her. We need these spaces to gather our grief.
And there’s other programming attached to this exhibit as well, correct?
On Saturday, March 25, which is the last day of the exhibit, there will be a closing event and reception open to the public. The event will feature project volunteers, narrators and donors sharing select pieces of writing and music. We are also in the process of creating a virtual 3D tour of the exhibit so that people can visit even after the exhibit comes down.
Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us.
My pleasure. Thank you.
Archive as Memorial: Documenting A/P/A Voices During Covid-19 is located at Storefront for Ideas, 127 Walker St., New York, NY, and is open from Wednesday through Saturday 1-6pm. For more information, visit here.