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by Jasmine Gui, Special Projects Programmer at Reel Asian

“Pigeons will be my first guides”, claims Donna Haraway in the first chapter of her book, Staying with the Trouble, before launching into a series of pigeon tales to think about interspecies companionship, our long histories of becoming-with others of all kinds, and our response-ability to building futures for the flourishing of multispecies in the shadow of both joyful and terrible histories.

What might all this have to do with taking up space at the 2023 Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival?

Early this summer, I began following—with great interest—a new art exploration Emmie Tsumura was documenting on her Instastories. Having attached a toy keyboard to her kitchen windowsill on which she scattered seeds, she began nurturing a relationship with a group of pigeons who would visit, and inadvertently, produce melodic sound.

At the same time, I’d been thinking through the increasingly urgent necessity of practices of play and strange forms of intimacies in Asian diasporic community-making.

The world as we know it is not working for us, and we must actively stay at the limits of what we do know and are familiar with, to play our way toward other imagined possibilities.

So taking pigeons as my guide for this year’s RA:X programming, I reached out to Emmie to propose producing an exhibition that centers zany play as an invitation to move into the unfamiliar, and possibly by extension, the radical.

Pigeonhole: verb
  • assign to a particular category or class, especially in a manner that is too rigid or exclusive

How have we “pigeonholed” ourselves into narrow frameworks that might not actually be that different from the structures that we have historically struggled against? What do we lose in our political over-identification with the assigned categories, histories and positions of our race and gender?

Pigeonhole: noun
  • a small recess for a domestic pigeon to nest in.

The spirit of RA:X PIGEONHOLE takes the path through the joke seriously. We have built you a pigeonhole to come hang out in during the festival. In this space, we invite you to enjoy music co-collaborated by Tsumura’s regular pigeon band crew and human artists. Watch the footage of evolving intimacies between bird, human, sound and space. Spend a bit of time at the pigeon shrine and send blessings to one of our oldest companion species. Collage your own bird kin to add to the monster flock taking flight. Nest and rest for a while. Bring your friend. Bring five.

RA:X PIGEONHOLE takes up in practice what Ken Chen calls “counterculture” in his essay, “Ethnicity as Counterculture”, “a strange impossible community that seeks not any specific emotion or goal but joy, the affect of possibility.”

Chen imagines for the Asian diasporic community a radical practice of counterculture that moves away from legibility within the preexisting world, toward a place where the need for that validation falls away:

Counterculture not as a utopia, but simply another mode of relations, just like all the other problematic ones.
Counterculture as another way of social being, one in which race functions neither as a wound nor as badge of diversity.
Counterculture that sees race not as a lens through which one critiques the center, but as a site where you may create your own work virtuously unseen by that center.

If we play hard enough, If we play together, reworlding might just grow from the ruins of the present; in the blindspot of the center; through the joy of an extended joke, to the sound of pigeon feet on a baby grand.