My photo is featured in the photo section of the event The Stories We Tell and the Objects We Keep: Asian American Women and the Archives. Harvard Radcliffe Institute, Friday March 5, 2021. Click here to link to the website.Photo caption: I only ever met my Japanese grandmother once, for about an hour. This is the only photo ever taken of us together – it shows three generations. I was born and raised in Japan, yet I never met my Japanese family. When I was 25, I invited my mother to go on a trip to the Tohoku region, with the intention of passing by her hometown, a place she had never returned to since she left it at 17. According to her, she was disowned from her family when she married her German husband, my father. On one hand, this photo depicts my maternal lineage, but on the other, to me, it also represents the irreparable family rift that so deeply marked my experience.
When I was invited to write a letter to someone about my relationship to Asian Americanism, you quickly came to my mind. But I didn’t want to just write to you, I wanted to invite you to respond and share your experience.
Before I ever met you or saw your films, I remember coming across your website and reading descriptions of your work and feeling an immediate kinship. I knew I had to know you. I was always drawn to film and literature as a vehicle for accessing other subjectivities as a way to make sense of my own and the various cultures that intersected in my life. I imagine this is the case for many. Some artists who are bicultural, or have a migratory experience of some kind, come to reckon with this aspect of their identity through their practice. I was intrigued by how your early films engaged with the complexities of being from two cultures with their respective histories.
You write that your films “negotiate the space between broader historical narratives and personal, psychological realms mainly through poetic manipulations of found and archival footage.” Your films resonate with me precisely because you succeed in communicating through affect. The feelings your films produced in me reminded me of my own searching, questioning, and reckoning. Am I Japanese? Am I American? Am I Asian American? Japanese American? Hafu? Am I a first generation immigrant? Perhaps I’m all of these things. Although you’re not American, I somehow found clues to my identity in your work.
I’m curious to know what works and artists accompanied you in your understanding of your identity. How did these influences shift your practice or process? How did you know that film was the medium you had fluency in? Since most of your work utilizes found footage, I wonder if preexisting images enunciated some of the questions and feelings that you yourself were grappling with.
The intimacy we feel when something outside of ourselves resonates with something internal is very profound. In that moment with an image, a film, or another’s life experience, we find kinship. Witnessing—or accompanying, as we do when we experience an artwork—grants us entry into others’ processes of becoming, and that experience inevitably becomes part of our own.
I’m grateful for your work and your friendship, and that we share and accompany each other in this unique place between Japan and the West.Love,
Is this how you write your name in kanji? I assume so—the characters fit you so perfectly: Love and Reason. Your parents picked such a beautiful name for you!
Did you know I have a Japanese middle name? It’s Yuki. There was a brief time that it seemed popular for some to use katakana for first names. My mom’s Japanese passport states her first name as セツ, Setsu. Anyway, she didn’t care for kanji in names. Frankly, I don’t think I had one for my name, until I kept asking her in grade school. I still remember her reaction—I’m sure she improvised on the spot. 雪。 Snow!
In the ten years or so that we’ve known each other, we’ve spoken time and time again about our respective experiences and how different they were. My identity has never been easy to define, and it has definitely changed over time. I went through a long (and hard) acculturation in the years after I moved to Germany. As you know, I was born and raised in Japan and attended the Tokyo German School there. I always identified as Hafu until I moved to Berlin, where I began omitting the half-Japanese part because it resulted in (constant) emotional labor, and in being othered too much—not just in every new encounter, but well into friendships, too. I think both Germany and Japan still have long ways to go in terms of their acceptance, understanding, and visibility of various minorities. Very few people seemed open to “believe” my experience: there were always too many questions about an “authenticity.” Nowadays, I like to say that I’m a transnational. I feel comfortable with this label because the prefix trans- denotes a movement of sorts, between, or from one to the other, whether that’s physical (moving from Japan to Germany, vice versa, and beyond) or psychological (between cultures; processes of adjustment, understanding, becoming).
For me, this acculturation occurred on every level: food, clothing, communication, behavior, mannerisms, and even in thinking. I moved to Germany in the early 1990s, at a time when people “innocently” asked me whether I spoke Chinese when I told them I grew up in Tokyo. This was before cheap air travel, which opened cultural horizons for the mainstream, and way before foodie culture arrived in Germany. It was still rather rare that Germans ate seafood (as it wasn’t widely available), and the notion of eating raw fish still triggered repulsion in many. It was quite hard and expensive to get Japanese food items.
I was used to courtesy, politeness, and being more cognizant of people when speaking, as you know, because in Japanese communication one uses different language depending on gender, age, and professional status. Berlin to me was pretty rough. One of the first things I was told when I finally got into art school, was that if I wanted to survive in this society, I needed to toughen up, and stop being so “nice.” I was told that I needed to learn how to “use my elbows,” that I didn’t seem to know what that meant. Within five years after moving to Germany, I ended up dropping out of university and going back to Japan for a few years. I wasn’t coping at all, but more than anything, I was disillusioned by the art school—not only because it felt more capitalist, conservative, and neoliberal than many other sectors in society, but also because I suffered from racism and sexism at the hands of almost all White, male teachers. I was actually never going to return to Germany, but I really wanted to finish my university degree. Tuition is free here, while student fees with living expenses in Japan (and even more so in the US) were too daunting, so I came back. But I was resolved that I would return to university only if I could study under a female professor, and luckily, this was possible.
My life up to my thirties always seemed predetermined by external projections: the Japanese were adamant that I could never understand Japaneseness simply because I wasn’t 100% Japanese, but the Germans also went the other extreme: at the University of Arts in Berlin, there were some feminists who thought it was progressive to call me only German. “Of course you’re German!” They were trying to be inclusive, but I could never get myself to tell them that it felt like erasing part of my experience and identity. In any event, I most definitely never looked Asian enough.
I believe it’s still quite common among Germans and Japanese to think that there is something authentic, originary, or primary about their respective cultures. Even though both countries have age-old histories of migration and mixing, and of course, colonialism––for Germany, these histories are a little more obvious, and for Japan, they are much more obscured––it feels like both Germans and Japanese share a strong belief that their respective cultures are native, homegrown, and endemic. There is a sense of unquestioned entitlement; there is prevalent, if latent (because often “unconscious”) essentialism. I think for many—conscious or not, latent or explicit—the dominant national culture is still an indisputable norm. In Germany, there is a socio-political concept in place of deutsche Leitkultur (German leading/dominant culture), which one must sooner or later submit to, in order to integrate, assimilate and succeed. (A kind of mirror image of that is the "one race mythology" that Japanese conservatives perpetuate.)
The turn of the millennium and the changes that came with the acceleration of globalization seem to have improved a lot in Germany. There has definitely been a bit more visibility and representation of “minorities” on every level, including academia, the arts, and visual culture. Germany is slowly beginning to go beyond working through WWll atrocities and national reunification issues to address its migration and colonial histories. But I believe that as long as any notion of Leitkultur remains a political stance, things will only change on a superficial level.
The first short film I made, Memories (2004), was an attempt at constructing my family history. My German father moved to Japan in 1958 and lived there for 36 years. I don’t know where or how he met my Japanese mother. The mystery and secrecy around my parents’ lives before I was born—combined with the fact that neither of them ever wanted to speak about their respective childhood experiences during WWII in Germany and Japan—just made me more curious. But at some point, I realized that the family secrets would always remain secrets, so I began thinking about history and memory in more general terms. Maybe I was looking beyond my own family history for a transnational history that pertained to my own identity. I found that history was usually narrated through a monocultural and national lens, and it seemed full of erasures and exclusions. I feel the desire to look beyond some of these gaps, to connect my experience with those that came before.
I’m not sure what came first, falling in love with old archival celluloid films or the urge to work with them. It probably happened simultaneously. Using found and researched material made perfect sense for exploring a time that has already passed. I love juxtaposing images and making unexpected connections between different people, places, and times. It feels right because that’s what marks the transnational experience for me—beyond feelings of an in-betweenness, my films translate the straddling, bridging, connecting, entangling, mixing, and merging of possibly completely disparate narratives, cultures, and contexts. Found footage works on multiple levels: formal, material, and metaphorical. Taking old films and creating new meanings through montage was full of creative possibilities for me. The (American) term “orphan film” also resonated because many postwar Hafu kids were orphaned in Japan, as were their stories and histories.
I spent my formative years as a filmmaker in San Francisco and in the American context, I suddenly “qualified” as a person of color. I experienced racism in both German and Japanese societies, but my experience in those countries was never “valid” and never seemed to fit any mold. It was only when I visited California for the first time in 2004 that I felt accepted for who I was. The Bay Area is a special place to me—the temperate weather, the colors of the sun light, the landscape, the proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, the fact that there, many European and Asian American cultures mix. No one thought it was a big deal that I was half-German, half-Japanese. I felt at home immediately. It’s funny because the Latinx communities usually thought I was one of them. The way they looked at me and automatically spoke to me in Spanish gave me an odd, but very nice sense of normalcy. In San Francisco, people didn’t ask me how long I lived where and what language I dreamed in, people didn’t ask me where I preferred to live, and if I thought I was ever going to go back.
I connected with artist activists like Scott Tsuchitani, who criticized “both sides:” through his work, mostly racism and representations of “Asians and Asianness” in visual culture. But Scott also criticized a sense of stagnancy within the Japanese American community, which didn’t make things easier for him. I related to this, to criticize and be criticized, and fight on multiple fronts. My conversations with Scott were very important; I think our experiences had a lot in common even though we came from very different backgrounds. In retrospect, I think we shared a sense of feeling “orphaned” by our reference cultures, by history, and by what were supposed to be our communities. Although this is my projection now, over ten years later, I’m not sure if Scott would agree with me.
Discovering Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1991) was very meaningful for me at the time. The way Tajiri went beyond official recorded history, interweaving fragments of memory and family history, in order to make sense of her personal history. The way she used absence to declare presence was an approach I had never seen before. The personal was nested in family/community/national/transnational narratives. I became very interested in Japanese American history, as it’s deeply marked by the friction between American and Japanese national histories; at the time it felt as close as it would get to finding a (proxy) history I could relate to, and this became a premise for my second film, Remote Intimacy (2007).
The time I spent on the Pacific Rim was formative for me as a filmmaker. It was around this time that I discovered Trinh T. Minh-ha’s work; her writing in particular was hugely influential for me. I remember the first time I read one of her essays, I felt like I had been struck by lightning. I woke from some sort of slumber, deeply inspired, even enlightened. She wrote—I’m afraid I forgot in which essay it was—that one should not self-marginalize or stay on the margins, but continually move in, out, around, through, and beyond different contexts. My memory is likely making modifications, but this the meaning I understood and took away from that first essay I read about 15 years ago.
This quote has haunted me: “Neither black/red/yellow nor woman but poet or writer.” It’s funny, because I identified with so much of what she wrote, all the while her work made me critical of the processes involved in making films around/about the politics of identity. I began to question and scrutinize my first biographical essays: this process led to me to work around these issues in a much more abstract, nonverbal, and metaphorical way.
This makes me think of a fellow half-German, half-Japanese artist, Hito Steyerl, who has made a point of not overtly discussing anything related to her identity. In an interview, she says that there’d been “a historical pressure to confess or use a confessional discourse among ethnic minorities in Germany, and that it’s the only possible story you’re supposed to tell, like relying on your origins or ancestry or stuff like that. But the problem with these stories is that if they do not correspond to the prefabricated stereotypes existing around this specific minority, then people will not be satisfied. And that’s sort of a trap or double bind, let’s put it like that. You are forced to confess, but whatever you say will not be what people expected and will therefore be invalid. I always tried to avoid getting caught up in this double bind, so I never made any work which could be understood as fitting into that category.”
I believe that it’s possible to make films in ways that don’t easily fit into one or the other category. But this is what I think now: I wasn’t so confident about it when I began making films. After ten years of making abstract work, I’m returning to making personal film essays about my experiences. I’m ready to take this on again now; I feel the need to open up a space up for myself, and hopefully for others as well—no matter what audiences expect and how they judge it.
I can’t think of films (or essays) that I encountered in Germany—or Japan for that matter—that related as deeply to my own experience, at least not in the way that I was impacted by the Asian American context. Being removed from it, as an outsider looking in, allowed me to see all categories and labels as temporary tools, that nothing is static, just like an identity is never static—it’s always in the process of becoming. While identity categories allow for communities to shape around them, I believe they must always be questioned, scrutinized, opened up, even exploded, before being reassem-bled in new articulations. I see this reflected in the way I’ve labeled myself over the course of my life: Hafu, half-Japanese, bicultural, intercultural, mixed race, and transnational. But language plays a role as well: in American English I’ve also been a Hapa, in German, it’s always been very complicated, while in Japanese, I’ve always been nothing but Hafu.
I’ve really valued our friendship over the years, Aily. I’ve really appreciated your confidence, your thinking, your programming, and your projects in the art and film world. It’s been inspiring and exciting to see a slightly stronger Hafu presence, and more representation, in the arts, and of course beyond.
The following is an English translation of the spoken text in the video:
For me, the word Biodeutsch (Bio-German, or literally translated ‘organic German’) has very unpleasant associations. At least three terms come to mind spontaneously: language, hierarchy and essentialism. Since “Bio” is the abbreviation for biological, for me, the term alludes not only to essentialist, but also to biologistic thinking: to biological and non-biological children; and that in turn opens up further associations, for example to heteronormative families.
The term itself wants to suggest that there is something like primary, original, or authentic Germanness. Inherent in the word are dichotomies: the original and the fake, the real and the false, the organic and the GMOs, the healthy and the unhealthy, the valuable and the worthless, the good and the bad etc.
For me, the dichotomies clearly create hierarchies. I think that the German Dominanzkultur (Dominanzkultur can be translated both as 'dominant culture' or 'culture of dominance') happily and effectively creates hierarchies: In coming to terms with the past, in memory culture, in assessing trauma, in evaluating pain, but also in identity politics.
I think that this not only leads to the hierarchization of the various minority groups; it also leads to erasures of the complexities of both migration and racism experiences. And these erasures in turn lead to desensitization, bias, and selective perception.
When [German] people hear my family name, Schedelbauer, those who don't know me automatically think, “She must be German, a white German." My mother is Japanese, and my life has been marked by racism for as long as I can remember; both in Japan, where I was born and spent the first 20 years of my life, and here in Germany. [German title in the video: “Has she learnt how to speak Chingchongnese yet?” Japanese title in the video: “because half-Japanese are dirty…”]
I came to Germany for the first time as an adult in the 1990s. When I was new, it quickly became clear to me that I couldn't claim that I had a migration background. ["German title in the video: “How can someone called Sylvia Schedelbauer have a migration background?!"] Although it’s officially true, with this word, too, there seem to be felt, unspoken hierarchies, that seem to be based on class, race, color of skin, and descent.
In the US, I’m mixed-race and a person of color; and I identify as a PoC. Here [in Germany], this remains invisible; my experience is constantly questioned about authenticity, and Germans always want to explain to me what racism really is. Some white Germans just LOVE to Racesplain.
So racism, too, seems to be structured in a hierarchy or ranking. The ranking devalues the psychological pain, the cumulative damage to health, caused by various different forms of racism.
The ranking also makes you feel that you’d better not say anything about your experience ... it leads to a silencing. It’s not the constant emotional work that keeps you from saying something, but the feeling that you won’t be heard anyway. It's a very effective silencing process that leads to so many erasures. I think that we [in Germany] still need to find an adequate, more nuanced language that affords a more differentiated dialogue.
For the most part, cinema goes to great lengths to conceal or distract from its piecemeal assembly. The labour invested in the fractured production of a single frame is often obscured by the polished outcome of the flat image. Fragmentation is an inexorable component of the medium however, not always something to overcome but arguably one of its great attributes, offering the possibility for infinite reconfiguration. This feature affords the filmmaker the unique albeit daunting opportunity to create something that closely resembles the elusive qualities of a thought process, with all the mysterious pathways, preoccupations and associations that this entails. It also allows for a more archaeological approach, one in which standard sequences give way to transparent images that peel back one by one to reveal what’s ‘around, or behind a picture’ rather than what comes next.
Sylvia Schedelbauer’s films are composed predominantly of pre-existing footage, material that she draws from educational, industrial and amateur collections that includes home movies, travelogues and newsreels. The un-captioned segments, although extensive, are characterized by what art historian Charles Merewether describes as the ‘countermonumental’ – no landmarks, iconic events or familiar historical figures appear. In Sounding Glass (2011) for example we see snapshots of a forest, a murmuration, explosions on a battlefield, a Japanese woman carrying a baby on her back, sun bursting through the clouds. In their original contexts, these shots were cut-aways, fillers, accidents even, expressions of what is typically overlooked but presented together here, they amass as a portrait of a splintered collective psyche. Sounding Glass features a protagonist though, a man who stares intently into the lens of the camera at the film’s outset and about whom all the film’s questions of cultural dislocation caused by global conflict relate.
The forthright protagonist in Sounding Glass is somewhat of an anomaly in Schedelbauer’s filmography – elsewhere figures mostly shield their faces from view, unusually wary of being captured by the camera. They are solitary and nomadic, conveying a painful sense of alterity reminiscent of the peripatetic characters that populate the books of German writer W.G. Sebald, perhaps most notably in ‘Austerlitz’ (2001), a novel whose eponymous Jewish hero is born in the advent of the Second World War and sent as part of the Kindertransport to London. Adopted and raised by Welsh parents, who conceal his identity from him, Jacques Austerlitz subsequently becomes intent on uncovering his past. The conspicuous feeling of rootlessness evoked in Schedelbauer’s way fare (2009) resonates with the novel but so too does the story that emerges in Memories (2004), the artist’s first film in which she uses a collection of her German father’s photographs to try and unearth the closely guarded secrets of both his and her Japanese mother’s early lives in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Memories and Schedelbauer’s second film Remote Intimacy (2007) are her only works in which voice-over features. From there, her focus is on developing an intensely visual language free from the confines of verbal speech. Soon the black insert appears, most obviously in False Friends (2007) giving expression perhaps to previously described gaps in family memory. Initially these dark single frames appear fairly evenly, creating more of a blinking rhythm than they do a sense of disturbance. In the opening section of Sounding Glass however, the black frames introduce the ‘frenzied inertia’ that critical theorist Francis Summers describes in relation to Austrian experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold’s Pièce touchée (1989), a 16 minute film that stretches out an 18 second extract from a 1950s American B-Movie that he says Movie that he says ‘mires the audience in a perpetual present that evokes a “now-now-now”’, a sensation of desired apprehension not dissimilar to the experience of absorbing some of Schedelbauer’s most recent works.
Introducing a heightened sense of the present is an uncanny facet of Schedelbauer’s manipulation of mid-century footage. This masterful act of simultaneity – experiences of present and past co-existing within the same frame – does not only apply here. It is a structural device and conceptual framework fundamental to Schedelbauer’s three most recent films. Each of these works are marked by the evocation of divergent tempos for example; the slow pan that occurs in the close-up shot of a human eye in Sea of Vapors (2014) is offset by the speed of the flickering image of a forested landscape which is braided through it. This strategy captures the liminal and subliminal features of memory, making as much reference to the unfathomable process of forgetting as it does to the nature of recall. It also creates a powerful vortex for the viewer who is drawn in as the images seem to radiate out from the screen to inhabit the full space of the rooms they occupy. This somatic experience is the mark of any encounter with these films and the all-consuming force of their syncopated luminosity.
Schedelbauer tells of how she adopts the flicker in some cases as a means of facilitating what she would like to do with footage that she finds in a compromised state. The flicker enables her to extend out the duration of a scene for example – it means she can impose her will over the material rather than the other way around. Schedelbauer says however that she is also driven to find ways of making this so-called found material ‘speak more’, a phrase that reveals a desire to uncover hidden or latent significance in largely discarded footage. This connects strongly to the idea that images which are no longer, or in fact were never, in the public consciousness have particular worth because of what Bruce Conner describes as, ‘a philosophical premise that’s been around for a long time: if you want to know what’s going on in a culture look at the things that everybody takes for granted, and put a lot of emphasis on that rather than what they want to show you.’
It is the act of combining as much as it is the act of selection that distinguishes Schedelbauer’s work with found footage though – hybridity is an essential component of what she does, blending two or more pieces of film to create a third, a fourth etc. This spawning of new material is a process of transformation that takes place on screen, each film living out a perpetual becoming, each precipice replacing the last. These shots exaggerate the ‘evanescence’ of the film image, the quality that places us as viewers under the command of the filmmaker who ultimately decides how long we see each shot and what it will be replaced by. This is a position that Schedelbauer assumes with unparalleled care, time and consideration, ensuring at every turn that the fragments she has unearthed for us always merit a second, much closer look.
Alice Butler is a Dublin-based film programmer, curator and co-director of aemi, a platform that supports and exhibits artist & experimental moving image work. Recent solo curatorial ventures include ‘The L-Shape’, an exhibition of moving image work by Jenny Brady & Sarah Browne at The Dock, Leitrim, ‘As We May Think’ at IFI, Dublin, and ‘New Spaces’ with VAI Northern Ireland. Butler has written for Sight and Sound, SET Magazine, Paper Visual Art, Enclave Review, VAN, EFS Publications, and CIRCA. She is a regular film reviewer for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena. She regularly presents screenings at Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and she has lectured or participated in panels on the moving image in Ireland at the Irish Museum of Modern Art, Project Arts Centre, PLASTIK Festival of Artists’ Moving Image, IFI, The Douglas Hyde Gallery, Galway Arts Centre, The Dock, University College Dublin and Dublin Institute of Technology.