Open City: Blogging Urban Change
The Basement Workshop Collective
By Cristiana Baik


This past spring, over a period of three weeks, I worked my way through the Basement Workshop Collective’s (1970-1986) archive-in-progress, currently housed at NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American (A/P/A) Institute.

On a purely conceptual level, there are the romantic inclinations many of us hold about archives, the notion that as writers or researchers (or just curious people), we become explorers apprehending details unexpected and piecemeal (remember this past spring when a Duke University graduate student “unearthed” Haiti’s original 1804 Declaration of Independence at the British National Archives?). With this, we begin to imagine individual lives and spaces—their sights, smells, sounds—through what anthropologist Ann Stoler describes as the archive’s “spillage of information.” As a historical threshold, an archive begins to re-version, re-claim, re-notate, revise, re-visit history in a way that is distinct and different from what, in comparison, might seem statically cemented in books.

After spending hours going through this working archive (the Basement Workshop Collective archive is still accumulating more material, and is not yet open to the public without an appointment), what began to materialize in my head was piece-meals of events that sandwiches, surrounds, intersects with this archive. I began to formulate a working chronology, one that contextualized the Basement Workshop archive within a series of events. The way I entered into this archive–its world of photographs, posters, pamphlets, hand-written poems, leaflets,and video recordings–was vis-a-vis the world outside of it. The spillage of information seemed to be happening multi-directionally: what proceeded before and after mapped out why this archive was important.

                                                                                                                 ~ ~ ~

The founders and earliest members of the Basement Workshop were young artists and urban planners, and although the number of locations of the Workshop grew (22 Catherine Street, 32 E. Broadway, 1 E. Broadway, 7 Eldridge Street, and 199 Lafayette), its headquarters was stationed in the basement of 54 Elizabeth Street.

One of the first items I found in the archive was a list of original members scribbled onto a page of notes by a former member of the collective:

Although the organization was loosely formed in 1970, it became a formal organization (non-profit) in 1971. This was only two years after the Third World Student Strike, where college students on the West Coast went on strike in order to establish the first ethnic studies program in the country at San Francisco State University. Within the throes of the Civil Rights Movement (1955-68) came the Civil Rights Act (1964), and a year after, the Voting Rights Act. The country was also in the throes of the Vietnam War (1955-75), one of a series of wars the US waged in Asia during the twentieth century (Philippines, 1898-1910; Japan, 1941-1945; Korea, 1950-1953). In 1965, the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act (Immigration and Nationality Act) was passed, and would permanently change the demographic makeup of New York City’s Chinatown forever. As Rocky Chin (a former member of the Workshop) described in 1971, “Chinatown is largely made of new immigrants. . . more than one-half of those now living in Chinatown came and settled between 1961-69. Chinatown has, in other words, undergone a complete population conversion within the last decade” (R.Chin 1971:286).

Folded within this national topography of socio-cultural transformations was the microcosm of New York City. During John Lindsay’s mayorship, there were a series of labor strike campaigns, including those by the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU; reminding me of the more recent crushing defeat of the 2005 MTA workers strike by NYC’s current “non-ideological” mayor ), the Department of Sanitation (DSNY), the United Federation of Teachers (between May and November 1968, all public schools in the city were shut down for 39 days), and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). And on a crisp, fall-swept afternoon in November of 1969 one of the earliest recorded demonstrations by Asian Americans took place in the city, against J. Edgar Hoover’s statement regarding “the red-baited Chinese” (R. Chin 2001:286).

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A few excerpts from the Basement Workshop Archive, A/P/A Institute:

“A lot of us were involved with the anti-war movement and student activism on the campuses, and the push for [establishing] Asian American studies, especially at City College, Hunter, Queens, and Lehman Colleges, and also Columbia. So a lot of us had known each other or have heard of one another through the Asian American anti-war movement. A lot of us were also involved for the first time with other Asian American in that struggle.” (Fay Chiang, from an interview with the A/P/A Institute , 10/21/2009).

                                                                                                                  ~ ~ ~

“The goals of the Basement Workshop include:

*Encourag[ing] communication and promot[ing] understanding between Asians in America and Asian Americans and the general American public;

*Stimulating the interest of Asians in America concerning their own welfare;

*Provid[ing] assistance to research projects and programs directly related to the welfare of Asian Americans and particularly those who live in Chinatown.”

(“Amerasia Creative Arts Program, Basement Workshop: Yellow Pearl proposal,” p.3. Assessed May 2nd, 2011)

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This is a photograph taken by a former Workshop member, Arlan Huang, in 1971. It’s one of my favorite photographs in the archive, and was taken in what appears to be the headquarter’s basement, thirty years ago.

When I look at it (archival impulses aside), I think of the way Roland Barthes described the intuition of photographs in Camera Lucida: on one hand, there is always the studium of a photograph, which always seems to pre-contain an image (our socialized brains working faster than what the eye can describe). The studium is the preconceived notions–socio-cultural context and linguistic–that we all carry, which in some ways, pre-describes the photograph before we really look at it. Then there is the image’s punctum, which is where a “wounding” happens: the details that can’t necessarily be re-shaped by the social filters we’ve been raised with. Looking at this particular image, there are several moments of punctum that occur: the What’s Up flyer in the background (I DO hear this in that valley-girl lilt dawdling the So Cal linguistic landscape I grew up in); the way a box leans in a kind of visual display of in media res on top of a heavy black trunk; the diagonal-cut of a shadow looming from a water/heating pipe that almost perfectly centers the image for me; an over-the-shoulder glance of someone who looks like my best friend; a woman whose back is turned, and who–if I was writing a story based just from this photograph–would be the main character; and the glance of a man, which can be interpreted in many ways (silent humor, pensiveness, slight annoyance). This all coming from a scene frozen by the momentary click of the lens of a camera, giving me a scene of writers and artists whose goals might have not been all that different from my own.

The photograph’s studium tells me, time transforms circumstances (NYC, 1971: an Asian-American artist’s/writer’s workshop literally working out of a basement, to NYC, 2011: an Asian-American writer’s workshop working from the sixth floor of a building in Manhattan’s micro-version of Koreatown), while its punctum describes something singular and idiosyncratic.

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“. . . the question of the archive is not, we repeat, a question of the past. . . It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow.”

                                                                                                                                                                                 –Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever

Since this photograph was taken, “Asian American” is no longer an unfamiliar identity/identification marker, ethnic studies have grown to become academized in similar ways that other disciplines have (in both praise-worthy and problematic ways), and archives have transformed from paper trails to digital files. The archive’s material becomes foreground and background, as a past commences into the present.

One Response to The Basement Workshop Collective

  1. Susan Yung says:

    The real story behind Basement Workshop as a Neglected Amnesiac past: Democracies in Chinatown: 1979–1994

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