a think piece on ʻae kai: a culture lab on convergence


The Greek poet-philosopher Lucretius once imagined that atoms fall like rain through a void. Change occurs only because atoms swerve off course, colliding with others and setting into motion a cascade of events. Convergence is a powerful thing.

ʻAe Kai: A Culture Lab on Convergence drew inspiration not from Lucretius but from the shoreline. In ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, ʻae kai means “where land meets sea.” This culture lab marked the convergence of over fifty artists, performers, and practitioners, most of whom are based in the Pacific and are of Native ancestry. Like previous culture labs, ʻAe Kai is impossible to capture due to the broad diversity of projects. There were, of course, numerous interconnected themes, including: the culture and politics of Hawaiʻi; surf knowledges and practices; food and sustainability; histories of colonialism, occupation, militarism, and capitalism; relations between humanity and nature; mindfulness; and ecology and climate change. ʻAe Kai was a kaleidoscope; this think piece is merely one turn. I explore three installations (a performance; a documentary; an interactive exhibition) on the theme of convergences between humans and nature. The pieces work against the modernist ranking of being in the world that elevates Western man above all other life forms and explore intimacies that are vital within the margins of survival.

She Who Dies to Live is a transpacific performance on struggles of indigenous women to live within the crosshairs of patriarchy, militarism, and colonialism by Jahra “Rager” Wasasala, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, Jocelyn Ng, and Terisa Siagatonu. Jahra begins the performance by slowly drawing the audience into a dark room. Jocelyn, Terisa, and Kathy are waiting on pedestals. Each is a goddess: Kanaloa, of Hawaiʻi; Nafanua, of Samoa; and mejenkwaad, of the Marshall Islands. Jahra approaches the goddesses who spit on her in turn. She falls to the floor and wails. She moves as though possessed by invisible forces. She screams. The goddesses speak, and Jahra tries to pull away. She can’t. She is dragged back by each deep gasp of the goddesses.

She Who Dies to Live seeks to empower indigenous women in a fashion resonant with Nietzsche, for whom strength lies in self-affirmation while weakness is evidenced in existential resentment toward those who are radically different. The response of She Who Dies to Live to violence borne of weakness is unflinching: “How threatening my feminine energy must be / How bloody my womanhood must look / How deadly my breath must feel.” Why be meek when one could be a monster and a goddess? The performers inhabit this strange coupling of ugliness and beauty, of sublimity and grace, to dramatize a fierce message: If the powers that be grant life only ever partially and tenuously to those who obey, then choosing to die is to fall through a portal into other worlds. The performers refuse to be tamed, refuse to be the objects of men for the taking, refuse the politics of recognition that subject indigenous women to the desires of the colonialist state. Instead, they empower themselves through a self-affirmation that punctures reality with impossible dreams: “In our dreams, to be a monster and woman / is to be the God / of ourselves.”

She Who Dies to Live reclaims indigenous womanhood by navigating the charged tension between gasp and breath, between death and life. Only after a barrage of fierce words, jarring movements, and visceral gasps comes a spot of tenderness. Jahra bows to the earth and inhales deeply. She approaches the goddesses and shares breath with each of them. This contrast between the sharpness of the gasp and the gentleness of the breath disintegrated me into a teary mess that only later could I begin to describe. In ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi, ea means “breath” but also “life” and, crucially, “sovereignty.” In She Who Dies to Live, the sharing of breath is a moment of togetherness, at once tender and fierce, that begins the treacherous path toward sovereignty. Perhaps the gasp, that reflex between death and life, is a passage through which indigenous women finally breathe, together.

This strange twist between life and death is echoed by reimaginations of life in philosophy, political theory, and the environmental humanities under what might be called “new vitalism.” Whereas the vitalisms of old separated a propulsive life force and stone-cold matter, newer versions treat vitality as a shared attribute of all beings, whether human or nonhuman, organic or inorganic, living or dead. While many new vitalisms seek an expansion of care in the face of mass extinction under climate change, She Who Dies to Live situates liveliness within the everyday social and political wars of Pacific women against the genocidal convergences of militarism, colonialism, and patriarchy. “I am living because they tried to drown my body but forgot I am made of salt. I am living because the last time I was buried alive, I escaped my suffocation by growing through the Earth they covered me in.” Although the powers that be try to weaponize soil and sea (think: radiated ecosystems in the Marshall Islands as a result of nuclear testing), the goddesses of She Who Dies to Live assert earthy embodiment as a vital resource in collective struggles to survive. The unruly alliances forged between women throughout the Pacific and across humans and earth and water reflect a collective vibrancy animated by fierce self-affirmations that provide uncertain but real passage through scenes of death. Breathe in a shared presence; exhale a world to come…

While She Who Dies to Live dramatizes the power of Native, womanly, earthy connections, the ʻAe Kai film Afterearth displays the importance of intergenerational connections in the face of climate change. Directed by Jess X. Snow, written by Kit Yan, and produced by Peter Pa, Afterearth centers on trans, genderqueer, and/or queers of color from various points of the Pacific and the United States. The film proceeds through four vignettes, each of which is framed by a particular element: fire, for Kumu Hina Wong-Kalu; water, for Isa Borgeson; wind, for Kayla Brïet; and earth, for Wanping Oshiro and Kit Yan. The vignettes imbricate kinship ties with care for the earth, which itself is kin. The film gathers into its circle stories of Native Hawaiian resilience, the 2013 Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines, Native reverence for the natural world, and surviving as trans in a world of stringently defined genders. It traces an intimate equation between people, stories, and the earth to narrate the fragility of humanity and nature. It highlights song, poetry, and gardening as important rituals of care.

At the culture lab, Afterearth played in a temple. Visitors huddled together on mats enfolded by three screens. The narrative unspooled on the main screen, charged by long shots of landscapes and closeup shots of hands on the adjacent screens. Although billed as a documentary, Afterearth was more like a dream space that fostered a poetics of connection.

“We are stuck with the problem of living despite economic and ecological ruination,” writes anthropologist Anna Tsing. “Neither tales of progress nor of ruin tell us how to think about collaborative survival.” Afterearth exemplifies what Tsing calls the “arts of noticing,” which turn our eyes away from those narratives in order to discern connections that are budding up in landscapes of heightened precarity. It explores the problem of collaborative survival by departing from omens of human doomsday on the one hand and unshakable faith in human survival on the other. While the ravages of climate change are nigh upon us (as demonstrated by recent storms in the Gulf, South Asia, and the Caribbean), Afterearth dares to imagine what is possible beyond narrow visions of decline. It focuses instead on the importance of connections while leaving big questions of human survival chillingly open. As Kumu Hina says, “Does the land continue to give birth to generation after generation? And it continues to provide for us, it continues to shelter and nurture us. One day, when the mother becomes frail like a child, then it will be our children to take care of us. And thus the cycle of life.” Its tales are not about progress or ruination but the promise of wonder, beauty, and love across generations, space, and time.

During a panel discussion of the film, audience members astutely pointed out that the title reminded them of “afterbirth.” For me, the title asked not only what, if anything, could be after Earth—after climate change has wrecked an array of ecosystems and wiped out life as we know it. It also underscored a dire pursuit; the film was chasing after Earth, after the kind of earth that we desperately need. As Kayla Brïet croons, “Just look through the eyes of a child / Don’t be blind to what you see / We don’t need another world / Just a future for you and me.” Against pie-in-the-sky dreams of colonizing other planets after we sap this one dry, Afterearth provides glimpses into earthy futures that may be possible—not here on Earth, but with and as it. As a convergence between “after” and “earth,” the film brings the future into the present as seeds of potential that could be cultivated in the ruins by you and me, wherever and whenever we are.

Such conjoint efforts across time and space were central inspirations for Earthly Correspondences, a collaboration between artist and environmentalist Linh Huỳnh and me. We created an installation space that replicated a shoreline in which trash and debris are constitutive features. Linh crafted jellyfish sculptures from plastic bottles and a geological structure made of cardboard and bottle caps. She adorned the walls with a colorful wave of marine debris supplied by 808 Cleanups, an Oʻahu beach cleanup organization. She hung from the ceiling the jellyfish and what she calls “living” time capsules (wood containers strung-up with braided twine that remained open instead of being sealed up and buried). Linh blurred the distinction between trash and resource, joining artists who reclaim wastes for aesthetic objects that solicit admiration and disturbance. (ʻAe Kai artists Wiena Lin and Maikaʻi Tubbs have also repurposed waste materials in this fashion). I composed an ocean of over 1500 plastic bottles that were bound by fishing net and buoys. I screened a slow-motion video of waves over the bottles and played sounds of ocean waves. The video and audio were out of sync to mark unhinging of nature as we’ve known it.

Altogether, the installation space of Earthly Correspondences sought to deepen awareness of ecological unsettlement due to rapid consumption and intense wastefulness. Linh and I also strove to foster a stronger sense of connection between people and the earth. Earthly Correspondences refers to semblances between humans and nature in our shared status as earthlings. Like She Who Dies to Live and Afterearth, Earthly Correspondences closes the anthropocentric gap between humanity and nature in order to solicit greater care, both for other people and for the planet of which we are a forceful part.

The title also refers to epistolary exchanges with/through the earth. Linh and I designed two activities. Linh’s “Honua: A Living Time Capsule” involved the deposit of letters between visitors and the earth into living time capsules. Keeping the time capsules open and alive allowed visitors to peruse their contents for inspiration and receive a palpable trace of those who came before them. Visitors were invited to write messages to the earth or to write a message as if they were the earth speaking to humans. My activity, “Message in a Plastic Bottle,” was an experiment in stranger intimacy. Some of the bottles within the plastic sea contained messages. Visitors would select a bottle, replace the message inside with one of their own, and return the bottle back to the plastic ocean. This process replicated the motion of the shoreline.

Both activities served as a reminder, all the more urgent in these times of ecological unsettlement, that we share the earth with others. You could receive a message only if someone else wrote it; your message would be deposited for someone else. A message is a convergence across space and time. Its exchange bears our condition of inhabiting a planet together. Even if we never meet, we affect each other through the traces we leave behind: debris, waste, and trash, but also pictures, handwriting, and heartfelt compassion. Each trace gathers a world. This anonymous convergence is not intimacy-lite; it plays a vital role in our lives, the lives of those before and after us, whether human or not. It forms nothing less than the collective fate of the planet.

Over the course of ʻAe Kai, I got a disquieting sense of the fragility of life but also of the undying commitment of artists, performers, poets, filmmakers, musicians, sound artists, cultural practitioners, academics, curators, staff, volunteers, and community members to imagine and create worlds that can hold us all. ʻAe Kai was not only about convergence. It was about exchange: exchanges of breath, exchanges of stories, exchanges of heart. The connections that followed took place, yes, in a former supermarket, in the biggest open-air shopping center in the world, on an island, and within the Pacific Ocean—but also on a planet where the future of countless life-forms is terrifyingly uncertain. As Linh brilliantly envisioned, the earth is a time capsule. Our legacy will be turning it into a repository of care or a trash bin overflowing with corpses and the most destructive excesses that this planet has ever seen. The ʻAe Kai community does not flinch on this razor’s edge. We will continue our work, and what happens next is up to you. We invite you to join us in a convergence of tears, labor, laughter, and love, in a home that has yet to be built but that is somehow ready to embrace us all, wherever and whenever we are.