Spoken word and gallery exhibitions: Zoom edition!

Zoom event title slide

I love stories. I think a vivid, well-told, and personal story is one of the most straightforward tools we have to dismantle prejudice and connect with those around us. Two years ago, my belief in their power drew me to Negative Space, an Asian American oral history project. Each semester, we interview Asian-identifying members of the Yale community about their stories and perspectives, with a goal of encouraging a more nuanced understanding of the Asian American experience. We publish these interviews on our website and host a spring gallery that showcases our interviewees’ quotes, photos, and artwork. Last year, for the first time, we also co-hosted an open mic/pop-up gallery with Jook Songs, Yale’s Asian American spoken word collective. Jook Songs, after all, tells stories in another form; our clubs are perfect matches for each other.

This spring, Negative Space’s interviews, like the rest of the world, went virtual. Luckily, interviews can be conducted anywhere, and throughout April, May, and June, we continued collecting stories, both about COVID-19 and from before the pandemic.

Negative Space's website front page
Negative Space’s website for our Spring 2020 interviews!

After we released our spring interviews a few weeks ago, my Negative Space co-president Joyce and I decided to go a step farther to commemorate them and share their insights. We turned back to Jook Songs for another open mic/pop-up gallery collaboration—because they’re amazing, because our event with them had such a great turn-out last year, and because we knew that they, too, would have a lot of stories to share from the past few months.

Of course, there were a few changes. Last year, our NS x JS event took place in the Silliman Acorn (a student-run coffee shop). Attendees first perused a Negative Space pop-up gallery before migrating to a back room to listen to Jook Song members’ performances. This year, in our adapted Zoom format, we screenshared a slideshow of quotes and photos from our Negative Space interviews, while Jook Songs members read poems they wrote that drew inspiration from those quotes. 

Our in-person pop-up gallery from last year (left) and our virtual gallery/open-mic this year (right).

I was pretty apprehensive about the entire event. I wasn’t sure if anyone would show up, and I wanted, more than anything, to avoid those seemingly unavoidable moments of Zoom awkwardness. I’m happy to report, however, that the event went amazingly well! Jook Songs members always blow me away with their talent. So many people, friends and strangers alike, came out (or, I guess, clicked in) to listen to the powerful spoken word performances and to peruse the Negative Space interviews. When we opened the floor up to any audience members who wanted to share their work, we even had an beautiful song performance by EMILI, a student singer-songwriter. The chat box was constantly alive with people hyping each other up. And for an hour, that little Zoom call burst with warmth, enthusiasm, and wisdom.

That atmosphere perfectly matched everything Negative Space has documented for the past few months. As Asian Americans, many of us are all-too-familiar with what it’s like to feel separated from family and identity. COVID-19 has only further amplified that distance. Many of our interviewees’ words from the spring had a lot to say about community, connection, and the responsibilities we all have to one another, particularly in the pandemic. The event felt like an extension of this new form of community we’ve had to build. And one thing’s for sure: the community we found on our Zoom call is alive, dependable, and eager to connect.

A welcome banner we made for our in-person event last year (left) and a graphic made by my amazingly talented co-president Joyce that we used to promote our event this year on Facebook (right).

It’s something I’ve observed throughout the semester. I’m not sure that Zoom or FaceTime can truly replicate the magic of going to a spoken word or gallery exhibition event in person—hugging friends and eating snacks, breathing in the buzz and anticipation before each performance, lingering afterwards to celebrate a job-well-done. But for now, it’s nice to know that our community cannot be broken, that it is strong enough to make its presence known, even through a small, pixelated screen.