Letters to Home
A project exploring xenophobia and racial discrimination in the United States.
!! trigger warning : vulgar & harmful vocabulary, racial slurs !!
Xenophobia is a very broad topic, and in this project, I plan to specifically explore unwanted interactions with strangers. These unwanted interactions can range from rude comments received while out in public to racially insensitive comments made online through social platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more.
This project will contain three primary symbols: a mailbox, butterflies, and postcards.
The mailbox is meant to represent the unwanted nature of xenophobic comments, since we don't really have a say about the kind of mail we receive or if we receive mail at all.
The butterflies represent the migration of people from varying countries seeking a better lifestyle, and butterflies are a common symbol of immigration.
The postcards contain actual xenophobic comments people have said or experiences people have suffered. I wanted to present them as postcards to emphasize the surprise element of these comments. We rarely ever expect to receive postcards, the same way no one expects to be discriminated when they go out in public. The stories these postcards will hold will be gathered from people willing to share their personal stories.
One aspect of xenophobia that I really wanted to highlight with this project is how irritating unwanted racist comments consistently are.
I planned to use an Arduino microcontroller, a stepper motor, and sliders to control the opening and closing of the mailbox so that it would "chatter" while it snapped open and closed - the same way that mouths run when people speak with ignorance.
To contrast the loud, clunky movements of the mailbox I planned to use an additional stepper motor to make the butterfly wings flap gracefully. The flapping of these butterfly wings is meant to represent the constant immigration and emigration of people from country to country seeking a home. The butterflies would be arranged so that they climb up the post of the mailbox, around the husk of the mailbox, and then above the mailbox along the wall to simulate them flying "away."
To understand the motion of flapping wings, I watched this video where they explained what parts are necessary to manufacture flapping wings. After watching the video, I designed similar gears and connection points in Adobe Illustrator but modified them so that they would fit with what I needed for my project. I designed this Illustrator file with the intent of using a laser cutter to cut the pieces out.
Once the pieces were cut, I planned to join the butterflies together with a rubber belt (like a conveyor belt) wrapped around dowels that connect to the gears. The rubber belt would scroll (think like how a conveyor belt moves your groceries at the store) and the friction between the rubber belt and the wooden dowels would cause the dowels to rotate. As the dowels rotate, the gears would follow and this motion would make the butterflies flutter together in synchronization.
To start off my project, I began by collecting stories of experiences people have had with xenophobia. In an attempt to figure out what I want to get out of these stories of xenophobia, I pretended to interview myself and picked my brain to see what stories I could share myself.
After sitting for some time, I found it incredibly difficult to speak on my own experiences with xenophobia both because of my poor memory but also how vulnerable I felt speaking about the struggles I face with my cultural identity. I figured if I can't even share my own experiences with xenophobia, how could I ask others to share their struggles with me?
With this in mind, I decided instead of gathering anecdotes about experiences of xenophobia, I would pull tweets from Twitter where people complain, explain, or just speak of xenophobia and racism in general. I chose to use Twitter as my tool for this project because it is a social media platform where people essentially "word vomit" their thoughts - they speak freely with little remorse.
I gathered tweets off of Twitter and put the text into a "tweet generator" to completely wipe the tweets of identity (see images to the right). By anonymizing these tweets, I eliminate bias from the tweets so that the viewer is left with only words to digest, and they can form their own conclusions with little outside influence. [ See all of the tweets I used here ]
Something I found interesting while gathering this material is that even though the tweets are all from unique experiences tweeted at different points in time and history, they all seem to interconnect as though they've started a discussion with one another. Another interesting discovery I made while gathering these tweets is that by eliminating the identity of the Twitter user, hierarchies of power are also obsolete. For example, some of the tweets I used in my project are from the President of the United States, Donald Trump, but when I take away his profile picture, username, and date that it's tweeted it is hard to tell which tweets are his.
THE SOUND ART
One element about xenophobia that I really wanted to focus on was the unwanted nature of xenophobic and discriminatory comments.
Originally, I had planned on using an Arduino to build an mp3 player that would play the sound art file I created on a loop. However, after some thought, I decided that these topics can be very sensitive for some and I did not want to force them to feel this discomfort - which is ironic because that discomfort is exactly what I am trying to convey to the viewer.
Ideally, I would have liked to play this audio file out loud regardless of the triggering content because the point of this piece is to force people to recognize that xenophobia exists and it's not something we can bury under the rug. However, because this piece was displayed in a class gallery, and I did not want to disrupt other artists' work, I decided to make this audio file available through a QR code.
The audio file consists of a robotic voice that reads the tweets I gathered from Twitter, with another robotic voice chanting racial slurs. I got the robotic voice by using a text-to-speech service and decided to have a robotic voice read these words to again eliminate any bias or context that a voice may give to the text.
Throughout this process of converting text to speech, I realized that a voice actually carries a lot more bias than I anticipated. For example, the text-to-speech service that I utilized had various voice options and they named each of them after "generic" names. I put generic in quotes because the names actually turned out to be exclusively common American names like Kate, Matt, Alex, etc. While I acknowledge that the text-to-speech service I used spoke in English which is why they used common American names, it is important to remember that non-Americans also speak fluent English. For example, English is my first language but my name, Dabria, would never be found on that list.
Playing with the text-to-speech software for this sound art piece made me wonder if the biases we associate with voices develop out of the volume of media that we consume on a daily basis. It also made me curious about whether the lack of representation in media leads us to associate fluent English with white people exclusively or if people imagine a person of color reading the words I've input into the text-to-speech software.
!! trigger warning : vulgar & harmful vocabulary, racial slurs !!
envelopes + stamps
Butterflies are a common symbol of immigration in our media today. Monarch butterflies tend to be used to represent immigration due to their migration patterns in order to escape cool weather. Other butterfly species typically do not migrate, or if they do they only travel a short distance in comparison to monarch butterflies.
For my project, I decided to use butterflies as a symbol but instead of having the monarch butterfly pattern I decorated them with a teal blue similar to Twitter's blue color. I hand-cut each butterfly and dipped them into a mixture of water, paint, and glitter to decorate each butterfly. I chose to dip them in watered down paint so that when the paper dries it curls in different ways as the water dries. This gives the butterflies more movement and fluidity in their form.
In my final presentation, the blue of the butterflies wasn't as bright and prominent as I would have liked, most likely because I watered the paint down too much. The glitter I used also did not adhere to the paper well since it was just dried onto the surface as opposed to glued. To combat these small errors, I hung the butterflies with short strands of fairy lights with a blue tint to emphasize the blue color.
For my project, because I wanted to represent the unwanted nature of xenophobic and discriminatory comments with mail (since we receive mail whether we want to or not) I wanted to create stamps and envelopes to carry the tweets I gathered.
I designed fake stamps in Photoshop and printed them on sticker paper for easy attachment to the envelopes I would later create.
The stamps contain activist art related to immigration, discrimination, and xenophobia. I do not own the artwork used in the stamps - please see below for art credits.
For the envelopes, I thought of giving each letter a different address to well-known government buildings, like the White House, as a nod to the need for our society to push for social change.
However, I decided I want my project to be more eye-opening and informative as opposed to calling the viewer to action. Because of this, I decided to instead write article titles on each envelope and date the envelopes with the year these article titles were released. This way, it gives the viewer a timeline and it shows them how little progress we've made as a society.