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Crosscurrents is our award-winning radio news magazine, broadcasting Mondays through Thursdays at 11 a.m. on 91.7 FM. We make joyful, informative stories that engage people across the economic, social, and cultural divides in our community. Listen to full episodes at kalw.org/crosscurrents

Guerilla Projection Creates Monuments of Light Against Anti-Asian Racism

"We Are One Family" projected on San Jose's city hall. Artwork by Cathy Lu
Lianne Lamb
"We Are One Family" projected on San Jose's city hall. Artwork by Cathy Lu

After the mass murder at an Asian-owned spa in Atlanta Georgia, Oakland-based artist Christy Chan launched the Dear America project. Alongside a team of volunteers, she projected images without permission at 10 sites across the Bay Area.

I see this project as creating monuments of light. It definitely is influenced by the dialogue we're having right now about who gets to be on a monument.
Christy Chan

For the final guerilla installation, the team projected on San Jose’s City Hall. It’s an 18-story tower of concrete and glass, looming over a wide concrete plaza.

Other activists had warned Chan that security might be tight.

“So we pull up, and luck as you have it, there's a parking spot right in front of where I wanted to project," she said. "And so that's great, because then you don't have to haul your equipment very far. So, we get all the equipment out of my car. And we decide which spot we're going to project from. I really am anticipating, and I said this to my team, too, I said, 'We might only be here for a short time. I'm not that optimistic about the spot, but let's just give it a try.'”

The team projected off the Santa Clara Street side of the building during a classic cars event.

Once the equipment was set up, a set of fists, with long red nails appear over a blue background. Red Mandarin characters on the image translate: “We are one family.”

Chan's colleague Michael Mersereau started to notice people gathering to watch the images change to white text-based designs reading, “The reason there are so few people of color on our monuments is because America whitewashes its history,” and, “How do you profit from this unceded Muwekma Ohlone Land, erased Chinatowns and displaced histories?”

He said, “There was also a like group of cars just circling around, and so there was like this slowdown in traffic. And when looking up, you had to really kind of tilt your head because we're at such a short distance from the building itself. So that it was a very much like, this kind of moment where people didn't realize there was something up there. And they would walk, and they would walk, and then like their necks would turn up, and then they would just see the bottom of the projection.”

Chan noticed people craning their necks and lying on the curb to see the projection around the 10th floor.

She said she has back problems herself from hauling film equipment, so she suggested they lower the projection so passersby wouldn’t have to crane their necks.

Dear America Project at Villa Montalvo Triptych: “Jiayou” and “We Are One Family” Artwork by Jenifer K Wofford and Cathy Lu
Isaiah Plaza
Dear America Project at Villa Montalvo Triptych: “Jiayou” and “We Are One Family” Artwork by Jenifer K Wofford and Cathy Lu

After watching hate crimes against Asian Americans increase over the course of the Trump administration and seeing the media cover the Atlanta shootings, Chan was tired of sitting inside.

“Dear America was conceived, I think, four days after. And normally on past public art projects, I might spend easily a year or even two years fundraising, organizing partnerships,” Chan said in her speech during the closing event — a final installation staged with permission at Villa Montalvo in Saratoga. “And with this, I just thought, I don't want to wait. I don't want to wait for someone to give me permission. And as someone who was censored fairly recently, I thought I do not want someone gatekeeping. What I want to say, or what I want to help other artists say: white supremacy doesn't operate on a grant cycle. So I decided neither can I.”

Artists started projecting on buildings as early as the 1970s. Occupy Wall Street also famously projected on buildings across New York City. But for Chan, the Dear America project owes at least as much to protestors toppling monuments throughout the last year.

Chan would load up her Honda Fit, filling every nook with a projector and a portable battery. Mesereau would help set up.

To set up the projection, “you have however long sunset is,” said Mersereau. “And then you also have to like, usually we'd ... stop at around 11 or 10:30 is our normal stopping time. And you're also on guard too, because you've got to watch for things.”

Meanwhile, Chan and the rest of the team are on the lookout for any pushback from security guards and passersby.

“Oftentimes, the security person says, ‘Okay, well, you can be out here a little bit longer, but I'm not supposed to have someone out here. So Just, you know, don't be out here too long,’” Chan said, “There was one security guard who told us, 'You know what, I'm not supposed to let anyone in this area. But if you just go right there, then that's not our purview. So just go right there.'”

Nearly all of the installations were staged without permission from any authorities. The team wouldn’t even disclose the location, leaving clues on their Instagram page instead.

But for the final event, the team worked with leadership to project on Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, the former summer home of former San Francisco Mayor James Phelan. He ran for US Senate in 1920 with the slogan, “Keep California White.”

Dear America Project at Villa Montalvo “White Supremacy is the Original Cancel Culture” Artwork by Christy Chan
Alina Dennis
Dear America Project at Villa Montalvo “White Supremacy is the Original Cancel Culture” Artwork by Christy Chan

It was the perfect, ironic location for a project about taking up space.

Michelle Gunther attended the event. She’s Singaporean and grew up in San Diego. She brought her aunt-in-law to the event which she described as “emotional” and “surreal.”

Gunther said, “We're walking around, people put on this big event, and I feel safe here too. Which was a weird feeling. I didn't realize that I would come to a place and suddenly realize like, I don't think I'm gonna have to worry about what I look like or not fitting in, or sticking out or being stereotyped.”

Chan is hoping to dig deeper into the history of anti-Asian racism and find more community partners.

“I don't know what exactly the next phase of Dear America looks like. But I think from where I stand, it's about continuing to make the invisible visible, and unapologetically taking up space,” she said. “What happened with the first phase was everyone who wanted to get in the car, I said, 'Get in the car.' And that's how I plan to approach the next phase as well.”

Although the project is done for now, Chan is already thinking of ways to continue. She says arts and cultural organizations have expressed interest in taking it further.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been edited from the original published version, which included a description of filmmaker Christy Chan and incorrectly stated her age.

Chan has worked hard to dispel very damaging racial and gender stereotypes.

In producing this story, we are sorry to say that we contributed to those problems. In our description of Chan, we said she might not appear like a person who would lug heavy equipment around. The story also made it seem like she was not in charge of the projections. She was.

We're grateful to hear from many listeners who took the time to share their concerns about these portrayals. It was not our intention to diminish the work of Chan, nor to perpetuate systemic racism or sexism. Our news director has spoken directly with and apologized to the artist and we have had several conversations within our department about what went wrong and how we can, and will, do better.

Thank you for your patience and for reaching out with your thoughts. Contact us at any time at new@kalw.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter to leave a message.

Katherine Simpson is a teacher and journalist in the Bay Area. She's been working in public radio since 2018.