IS/LAND, an Asian-American-Pacific-Islander performance collective, created Invisible Embrace, a dance/sound piece with sound installation by Joo Won Park. A meditation on intergenerational healing, this performance interweaves spoken testimonials by Japanese internment camp women survivors with the reflective movements of the IS/LAND dancers. These women’s stories of resilience and survival, in the face of anti-Asian bigotry and a restrictive patriarchal society, spotlight how far AAPI women’s roles in American society have progressed and yet, remained stagnant. We caught up with Catherine Miller, one of the IS/LAND members, to discuss their interdisciplinary work and inspiration for this piece, which you can see when you purchase tickets here forThe Memory Place, a unique multi-arts experience about cultural memory and hidden histories showing June 1-11.
PIVOT ARTS: We’re looking forward to presenting your dance/sound installation, Invisible Embrace, as part of the upcoming Memory Place performance. What inspired you to create this piece and highlight testimonials from women survivors of Japanese internment camps?
CATHERINE MILLER: Our visual dseigner, Chien-An Yuan, actually heard about the interviews from the Oregon Nikkei Endowment Collection and the Densho Digital Repository, and was so struck by them he shared them with rest of us, J Amber Kao, Chih Hsien Lin, and myself. He had already met Joo Won Park and learned about Joo Won’s fascinating and cool technology, so when he came to us he had this idea of us creating a piece around pulling stories out of the air. At the time of the piece’s conception (2021) the increase in and intensity of hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. was becoming more prominent in the news. As we talked about what those interned in the camps went through, we discussed our feelings around Asian hate today. The piece became our response to the hate we were feeling toward our wider Asian community in America and what we hoped to learn from those who had experienced it in the past.
PA: How do you connect these stories from the past to current roles of AAPI women in American society?
CM: We use one story told about a woman- more specifically the speaker’s mother and a store owner- and her generosity and kindness toward a bigot who was picketing her store because she was Japanese. This story stands out so strongly to me, not just because of her kindness and willingness to see and treat someone who hated her as a human with regular human needs, but also because I feel that she acted in a way that women, particularly women of that time period and particularly Asian women, are viewed – gentle, kind, nurturing and willing to serve. However, she was those things in a way that completely turned all of those qualities into acts of strength, resilience, and character, which is very much how I have always known and experienced Asain women in my life. All of the stories feel very much of their time, but at the same time, timeless with resilience, quiet strength, and common life events. As a group creating Invisible Embrace, we also talked a lot about the matter of fact and almost non-chalant way the women spoke about what happened to them and their families, and how most of them did not seem to outwardly harbor any resentment; they simply chose to move on with their lives. It didn’t occur to me then, but I think that choice, while it may have been part of the times, created a stability for the next generation to have a different range of emotions and responses to injustices.
PA: Can you talk a bit about your creative process for building multidisciplinary work with sound innovator, Joo Won Park? I’m curious which elements come first as you’re developing a piece? For example, do you start with sound and then add movement? Or do you start with story and then add elements such as movement and sound?
CM: As mentioned before, Chien came to the group with the idea of using Joo Won’s sound technology. When he brought the idea, we decided to listen to the narratives individually and then come together and distill the themes we heard within the stories and our collective emotions in hearing the narratives. We also discussed broad visual ideas of the piece and the idea of the suitcases came into play. Then the three movers began the process of creating movement separate from the sound. As we moved we found new movement themes and then discussed concepts of land and honoring those who have come before, and different props entered the piece. Chien created the sound design and worked with Joo Won to figure out the logistics with staging. When we all came together we discussed new movement themes and ideas with props along with lighting and sound elements. We discussed logistics, and figured out a way to best work with the technology, and deepened the symbolism of the props. Mind you, because Chien, Amber, and Joo Won lived in Ann Arbor and Chih Hsien and I lived in Chicago, we did most of this through zoom meetings/rehearsals and came together for only two in person rehearsals, before performing. It has been interesting for sure to see how the piece has grown as we’ve added new dancers and gotten the chance to play more with the sound technology.
PA: You have described that your work includes an increased focus on “optimizing audience engagement.” What does that mean to you and how do you hope audiences will engage with this specific piece?
CM: We love having discussions with our audience after they see the piece. We really try to create a full visual scene in order to bring people into the story we are abstractly trying to tell. We hope to immerse the audience in place and provide an experience for them. We love hearing what they saw in the piece or what memories or ideas it brought up for them as well as sharing our intentions. For Invisible Embrace in particular, we love to invite audience to come check out Joo Won’s sound technology. He is great and wants people to see it and try it out themselves.
PA: And since we’re talking about cultural memory… which Chicago landmark would you say most embodies your personality and why?
CM: Hmmm… Maybe The Bean (or Cloud Gate if you’re feeling formal). I’m pretty social and like to move in curvilinear patterns. I also like to reflect things back to people or help them see something in a different way. I also enjoy being silly, which you often see people being when looking at themselves in The Bean. Plus, I have a funny nickname (Cat) and much more formal name (Catherine).
Thanks so much to Catherine for diving deeper into IS/LAND’s work with us! Don’t miss your chance to experience their incredible performance.
photo by Chien-An Yuan