Cut Sleeve, 断袖, is a generative algorithm that takes transcribed text from interviews with queer Asian-American men and translates them into living stories that can be worn. This program will take texts from these interviews and assign designs to letters of the alphabet that can be digitally embroidered on to garments.
Our identity consists of many things; your interests, your hobbies, what you choose to study, and the types of people you surround yourself with are all vital to the construction of our social existence. That said, another large portion of one’s personal identity is contingent on race and sexuality — factors of great importance to me, though this has not always been the case. Like many others, my early adolescence was emotionally turbulent. During this time I began to consider how my sexuality and my role as an Asian individual played into my position in my community, which was predominantly heterosexual and white. The alienation I experienced has followed me throughout my life, and even today, when I look towards the media I continue to believe that queer representation still focuses on a singular narrative that doesn’t pertain to individuals like myself. I feel selfish — shouldn’t I be happy that there is finally some semblance of the queer representation that I so desperately longed for when I was younger?
The choice of a robe is directly tied to the name of my thesis, Cut Sleeve (断袖 Duàn xiù), a euphemism for homosexuality that originated from the history of Western Han. Emperor Hàn āidì, who reigned from 7 to 1 BC, was famous for being one of history’s first gay emperors. The term Cut Sleeve is taken from a famous story where Emperor Han and his lover Dong Xian were napping together. The emperor had to wake up and attend a court audience, but Dong Xian was fast asleep with his head resting on the emperor's long robe sleeve. Thus, the emperor used a knife to cut off the lower half of his sleeve in order to not disturb the sleeping Dong Xian when getting out of bed. To me, the physical manifestation of the patterns on the robe mirrors the intimacy between a body and a worn garment; there is an immediate physical connection between the translated stories and the bodies that inspired them.
The algorithm itself recognizes each character or letter by it’s assigned key code. To the left is an example of how the program works. Within Processing, each typed key has a specified code. For example, the key code for A is 65, B is 66, C is 67, and this continues until Z which is 90. Once the algorithm registers a keypress and associates the letter to it's assigned keycode, the program pastes an image within the parameters of the canvas that I set. Thus, once I have fully typed out sentences, I can export these images into a file that can be read by a digital embroidery machine.
The curated images in this example are iconic pieces of Asian American nostalgia. These 26 images represent imagery that I was fascinated with as a child. All were uniquely integral to my development of identity. These objects tended to be either a mix of Eastern and Western cultural influences or a direct byproduct of the collision of both cultures.
I am using this thesis exploration as a way to come to terms with my own guilt towards the inherent internalized homophobia I harbor in tandem with the dichotomy of being trapped between two polarizing identities. This goal of realizing the “American dream,” a particular white fantasy sold to immigrants like my parents, have been now passed on to me. However, it is impossible for me to meet a requirement of the American Dream: a white picket fence family. Cut Sleeve is centered around this feeling of guilt: the guilt of having my identities, my Asianess, my Americanness, and my queerness, constantly at odds.
Thus, I also want to create something for the Asian child who was worried about acting “too gay” and not able to come out due to cultural stigmas or familial expectations. I want to create something that synthesizes what I want to feel, something that makes me feel proud to embody the effeminate gay Asian man I am.
*Although the Covid-19 Pandemic has put an indefinite pause to Cut Sleeve, I would ideally continue the project right where I left off, as soon as I am able to meet with individuals in person again as well as having access to the proper facilities and machinery. I have nearly acquired all the pieces of the puzzle in order to realize Cut Sleeve, and I patiently await the opportunity to finish the puzzle.