Alien Agents

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday

Alien Agents

By Genevieve Quick March 27, 2018

Tomorrow We Dreamt of Yesterday explores how artists create counter-narratives that fuse science fiction, present-day life, and histories of colonization, displacement, and economic and political inequities.

Ideas of what makes someone alien or foreign rely on binary categories of membership, the definition of us and them. The United States has a history of anti-immigrant sentiments that provoke intolerance of hybrid identities and feed paranoia about alien agents. In this climate, national, racial, ethnic, and cultural hybridity becomes more threatening to a unified us when an other blends in, when the lines that define membership and belonging are blurred. It is no coincidence that science-fiction films—perhaps most famously Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978)—have explored this anxiety with the trope of shape-shifting aliens who morph into human bodies. Even more alarming to a xenophobic white culture is when minorities inhabit and control white bodies, as in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). While science-fiction films have embodied such fear of alien agents in popular culture, contemporary artists such as Tseng Kwong Chi and ADÁL have created works that challenge and scrutinize the portrayal of Asian and Latinx Americans as suspicious others by bringing together apprehensions of foreigners and humanoid aliens.

Trump's ban on immigration from majority Muslim countries is the most recent revival of presidentially sanctioned xenophobia. As shown by the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943) and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (1943–46), Asians from both the Far and Near East have often been viewed as threats to American security. In mass culture, science-fiction films reflect the anxieties of global politics as they position the foreigner as suspicious and alien. The title character of The Mask of Fu Manchu transforms what he has learned from his Western education (with doctorates in philosophy from Edinburgh, law from Christ College, and medicine from Harvard) into a plot to destroy the white race. Terry, the film's white male protagonist, resists Fu Manchu injecting him with what he thinks is poison; Fu Manchu explains that it is a serum that combines his blood (that of an Asian man), dragon's blood, organs of different reptiles, and a magic brew of seven sacred herbs. The poison/serum illustrates the anxiety over racial mixing, monstrously expanding it to combine animals and plants. The formulation is designed to transform Terry into a puppet who will do as Fu commands.1 Because Fu Manchu is unable to pass as white—an unintended irony, since the character is played by the white actor Boris Karloff in yellowface—he needs a white man to execute his plan to take over the West.2 The Mask of Fu Manchu illustrates a fear of allowing Asians into the West: that they will shape-shift, physically or culturally, to blend in to society and become enemies that walk among us.

Following Nixon’s historic 1970 trip, as the first American president to make a diplomatic visit to China, Chinese immigration to the United States slowly resumed. Born in Hong Kong, raised in Canada, and educated in France, Tseng Kwong Chi was living in New York when he began his series of self-portraits, East Meets West (1979–89). In these images, dressed in a thrift-store-purchased Mao suit and Ray-Ban mirrored sunglasses, Tseng mines the scrutiny that his communist uniform conjured as he posed at major American monuments and tourist attractions (like the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, the World Trade Center, and the Hollywood sign), which can be seen as symbols of Western capitalist imperialism or preeminence.3 With his choice of locations and costume, Tseng positions himself as a kind of tourist. He states, "I am an inquisitive traveler. A witness of my time and an ambiguous ambassador," framing his otherness as being Chinese or an intergalactic or interdimensional visitor.4 Tseng plays with the paranoid idea that he, being a Chinese man, is doing reconnaissance in a plot for world domination, a recurrent theme not only in films like The Mask of Fu Manchu, but also in political propaganda.

Like the early works of Cindy Sherman, Tseng's photos refer to film noir, with worm's-eye views and dramatically angled perspectives. Tseng's stark black-and-white images have the stillness of impending trauma, like science-fiction B-films in which alien invaders take human form. In these self-portraits, Tseng is playing a character: an expressionless, impersonal observer whose inscrutable face and stiff posture suggest the failure to simulate humanity, a product of a dehumanizing communist system. His character also recalls the zombie-like alien simulations in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

In many images, Tseng visibly holds the camera's cable release. As in the works of other Pictures Generation artists, this gesture reveals the act of image making. With the artist’s uniform and martial postures, the cable release also connotes a trigger and the anticipation of mass destruction. In retrospect, Tseng's 1979 image of himself in front of the World Trade Center foreshadows the political climate following the 9/11 attacks, in which Asians from Middle Eastern countries are targeted by anti-immigrant policies.

ADÁL. La Coconaut Interrogation, 2017; video; 10:24. Courtesy of the Artist's studio Fotoflo, Santurce, Puerto Rico.

Of course, Asians are not the only targets of suspicion of otherness. Being both immigrants and dual citizens, Puerto Ricans possess a hybrid status, which arose from the island becoming an unincorporated territory of the United States after the Spanish–American War (1898). In a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions that began in 1901 (known as the Insular Cases), the U.S. defined Puerto Ricans as an "alien race" and "foreign in a domestic sense," and in 1917, the court granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans.5 In La Coconaut Interrogation (2017), the Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) artist ADÁL explores this state of hybridity and the suspicion that it triggers.6 The sparse black-and-white video chronicles the interrogation of Agápetu Ocula, a Puerto Rican vision scientist, after NASA found him on the moon. Today we know that undocumented aliens are detained after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids; in ADÁL's video, NASA's Air Intelligence Center for Interrogation quarantines and detains Ocula, keeping him in a dark space and under maximum security, supposedly for the safety and comfort of the "alien." Because Ocula appears human, with plain and reserved gestures, Special Agent Wayne Murphy remarks, "You look like us—an earthling, that is."7 Murphy's dialogue points to the power of appearances and the division of us as either American or human.

Viewers hear Murphy's voice but never see his face; the video is fixed on Ocula's face, with his dialogue appearing as subtitles, for he is able to communicate with Murphy telepathically. When asked where he is from—a question frequently posed to non-white people—Ocula explains that he is from an Atlantis-like place, on Earth, that had many races, brilliant artists, musicians, politicians, and philosophers. However, his home was invaded by Americans (as was Puerto Rico), and his people eventually disappeared from Earth to find refuge in an "out-of-focus parallel dimension."8 Murphy probes Ocula about his mission, asking him if he has come to infiltrate the United States. Like many immigrants who are tired of having to constantly explain themselves, Ocula simply states, "I don't have a mission," which Murphy refuses to accept over the course of the interrogation.9

ADÁL. La Coconaut Interrogation, 2017; video, 10:24. Courtesy of the artist's studio Fotoflo, Santurce, Puerto Rico.

In her essay "The Imagination of Disaster," Susan Sontag writes about mid-century science-fiction films: "There is a sense in which all these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent. They neutralize it, as I have said. It is no more, perhaps, than the way all art draws its audience into a circle of complicity with the thing represented."10 While Sontag briefly addresses the anxiety over nuclear weapons as expressed by Japanese postwar films, most of her discussion is centered on films that idealize the white middle-class American dream while presenting a sinister alien invader as a foil. In works that recall these filmic precedents, Tseng and ADÁL do not propagate or neutralize the abhorrent, but rather create counter-narratives that challenge traditional science-fiction tropes that vilify the other. Moreover, these artists harness their culturally hybrid backgrounds to blur the distinction between an us and them, toward a condition in which the term alien is a national and planetary identification.


  1. The trope of Asians brainwashing white men also appears in The Manchurian Candidate novel (1959) and films (1962, 2004).
  2. Karloff played the title role in Frankenstein (1931). The publicity tagline of The Mask of Fu Manchu was "The Frankenstein of the Orient!"
  3. Tseng also extended this project to Europe.
  4. Christine Lombard, “Tseng Kwong Chi: East Meets West,” 1:18–1:24;
  5. Doug Mack, “The Strange Case of Puerto Rico,” Slate, October 9, 2017,
  6. Like Larissa Sansour and Frances Bodomo (whose work I addressed in my earlier article, “Whose Place, Whose Space? Extraterrestrial Stakes”), ADÁL reimagined Puerto Rico landing on the moon, in his project Coconuts in Space (2006–16). La Coconaut Interrogation is available at
  7. ADÁL, La Coconaut Interrogration, 1:26.
  8. ADÁL, La Coconaut Interrogration, 1:56.
  9. ADÁL, La Coconaut Interrogration, 4:10.
  10. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1966), 225.

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