Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson

Joshua Takano Chambers-Letson is Assistant Professor in the Department of Performance at Northwestern University. He has published articles in JPMS, MELUS, TDR, Women & Performance, and Criticism. His book project, A Race So Different: The Making of Asian Americans in Performance and Law, is under contract with NYU Press.


"Mare Liberum (The Free Sea) in Karen O's Native Korean Rock"

Karen O is a rock musician of Polish-American and Korean descent, most famous as the front woman for the art-rock band The Yeah Yeah Yeahs. In the summer of 2008, she took to the stage of Brooklyn’s Union Pool to perform with her side project Native Korean Rock—a gesture to the artist’s Asian American background. Clad in romantic, nautical garb, the band performed the set in a boat labeled the “SS Seoul,” against a backdrop depicting the expanse of the open ocean. In this brief concert, Karen O forged a link between two massive cities (Seoul and NYC), before taking her audience out to sea.

In this paper, Chambers-Letson situates this performance within a tradition of Asian American cultural production that figures the ocean as a space of possibility between cities of departure in Asia and immigrant metropolises in the United States. It locates the performance within the broader history of oceanic migration from Asia to America as well as the curious legal figuration of the ocean in international law as mare liberum (the free sea). Playing with the concept of the ocean as a space free from national jurisdiction, the paper suggests that Native Korean Rock offers the oceanic as a space in which we might account for the histories that have produced Asian Americans as racialized national subjects, while affording us the opportunity to imagine ourselves as liberated from the limits of racial and national subjection.

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Friday, March 23

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