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Thursday, June 8 • 5:00pm - Saturday, June 10 • 7:00pm

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We are aliens. According to the law, we are non-resident aliens. We — the immigrants that came to get our phds — find ourselves alienated from land, kinship, and our non-american epistemologies, that are suppressed or selectively extracted by american academia. In the imaginaries of settlers in the united states of america, we are from alien lands, bringing our alien cultures, and depending on their benevolence to reform our alien ways to assimilate into this civilized country.

To survive and exist as ourselves, we must find and (un)make space that will nourish us. In this hyper-surveilled, precarious position, we need a place of refuge - a closet - that can hold the weight of our split lives, our always-dispensable bodies, and our complaints. A closet is our alien spaceship, a space we choose to place ourselves to feel at home, feel a sense of the familiar.

For this conference, we propose an art installation of an immigrant-closet. Both a physical claustrophobic space that is dark enough to hide us from omnipresent surveillance, yet also an alchemic space of possibility. The closet contains sonic, olfactory, visual, and kinesthetic elements. Visitors may fill parts of real visa questionnaires that ask intrusive and absurd questions about our alien pasts, or they may fill a book of complaints. A cacophony of sounds permeate the closet, and looping videos direct visitors’ attention to different emotions present in the tight space.

As we explore the idea of the immigrant-closet, we recognize the complexities of the term "closet" and its dominant association with the experiences of LGBTQ people. While acknowledging the important work that has been done to theorize and politicize the closet in this context, we also seek to expand the concept to encompass other marginalized identities and experiences. The immigrant-closet is a space of hiding and seeking for those who are constantly subjected to surveillance and exclusion, particularly in the current political climate. This includes queer immigrants, immigrants coded as queer, queer people coded as “exotic” (from foreign lands), and immigrants who despise the dominance of american epistemology in governing our sexual lives and identities.

We aim to shift the focus from a monolithic understanding of the closet to a more nuanced and intersectional one. We begin to interpret the closet as more than a metaphor relating to the lives of queer people, but rather a space of concealment and survival for various marginalized groups. Our proposed art installation of an immigrant-closet seeks to explore and highlight these complexities, while also creating a space for intimacy, connection, and resistance.
In the closet, time shapeshifts from its usual commodified form to a free flowing resource, for tasting and wasting. It is a time-machine. Floating through this time-space, there is a new promise of intimacy and connection with others who are in this closet.

Our closet contains our inevitable ties back to the lives we left behind, the skeletons we carried with us, and the barrage of war/disaster/protest news that pulls the grief in our bodies across oceans. Like any closet, it also contains the clothes and identities that we need to constantly switch between - graduation gowns, clothes from our homelands that codes us as national specimens, free t-shirts from assorted events, linkedin suits, party clothes, and the wigs and masks that conceal us when we must venture out of the closet.

Our immigrant-closet is not a quiet space. It is a soundscape tuned to various waves. A wave of anger at the protracted ongoing wars, a wave of contentment during a satisfying meal. A wave of sadness on hearing of our relatives’ ailing health, a wave of calm listening to a soothing music album. A wave of helplessness at having to communicate in english, a wave of connection from listening to frogs in the rain. These waves rock our boat-closet, threatening to topple us at any given moment. We surf the waves of bureaucracy (visa-renewal, paying to do internships, H1B lottery, etc.) even as sea-sickness makes us retch occasionally.

For some of us, it was a “choice” to come here, albeit from a limited set of choices. Like the choice between pepsi and coke, or between neoliberal presidential candidates. Being an immigrant in academia is also a privileged position. Therefore, this closet is not a universal experience, nor do we speak for all aliens. After our immigration to this stolen land, we have found ourselves smashed between non-belongings. Non-belonging to the hypernationalism we left behind geographically and non-belonging to the hegemonic empire we currently inhabit. We make choices based on the structures of power that condition our choice-making. The closet gives us space to question and refuse this choice-making.

How do we make healthy choices in a sick world? The funhouse mirrors in the closet look back at us, bodies distorted, at varying distances, refracting the ways in which we split our energy. We are given one important and portentous piece of advice, “hang in there”.

For this work, we draw on the ideas of Eve Sedgwick (Epistemology of a Closet), Sara Ahmed (Complaint as Queer Method), Matt Brim (Poor Queer Studies), Eve Tuck (Biting the Hand that Feeds You), Fred Moten & Stefano Harney (The Undercommons), bell hooks (All About Love, Teaching to Transgress), David Graeber (Utopia of Rules), Laozi (Tao Te Ching), la paperson (A Third University is Possible) and many others.


Abhishek Viswanathan

University of Pittsburgh

Maria Ryabova

PhD student, University of Pittsburgh

Thursday June 8, 2023 5:00pm - Saturday June 10, 2023 7:00pm EDT
TBA 207 Ryerson St, Brooklyn, NY 11205