Still from Visits 2021. Video. 14:12
An interview with Sunita Prasad by Rah
Sunita Prasad is a New York City based artist working in film, video, and performance. Her works often employ methods of hybridization between documentary and fiction. Sunita’s projects span a variety of subjects, landing frequently on gender, representation, and social movements. Here she reflects on the more personal history explored in Visits, her video with Temp. Files, and the interplay of memory, place, friendship, and belonging.
A PDF of the interview is available here.
Rah: Sunita, you have created a multifaceted oeuvre while working in the genres of performance art, drag, video and documentary. How do you navigate new mediums to address the idiosyncrasies of a particular situation or narrative?
Sunita: Most of my work stays somewhere in a range of time-based work. Whether it's film or video installation, performance, or most recently, dabbling in traditional theater, there's a storytelling element and there is an element of time in all of it. The aesthetics can change a lot based on what the exploration is, though. For example, when I was doing a research-based performance that had to do with the sale of images of one's body on the internet, I decided to harken back to an earlier technology. In order to highlight the transaction, I made a coin operated video booth, so the viewer had to actually perform the act of paying to see the art work. Another time, I collaborated with a glassblower named Liesl Schubel to make custom screens that had more organic “pregnant body” forms for a video installation about my body and time. So the format tends to follow the subject pretty often.
Sunita Prasad, Mein Hair, installation view, 2011
The idea for this video, Visits, grew out of a 20 year friendship I’ve had with writer and actor Jess Barbagallo. Twenty years is a long time, but we’ve always known it could have been longer. Jess and I both grew up in the Syracuse area and were both teenagers exploring our queer identity in the late 1990s. Remarkably –considering how tiny the Syracuse queer youth scene was at the time– we never met. I asked Jess to go on a trip home with me to show each other the sites that were important to each of us during that time. I’m extremely grateful that he agreed and we got to make this together!
Rah: Visits is an intimate recollection of the many spaces and institutions that have shaped you and Jess’s experiences as Queer subjects. Members of the LGBTQ+ community seek spaces that are safe for queer expression. These sites are often vital to the community’s or individual’s survival. Why did you select these spaces to revisit in your video?
Sunita: There was a healing aspect to traveling through the city and surrounding towns with Jess. I have always been so negative about Syracuse, and about my queer experience in Syracuse in particular. Growing up, I thought of it as a place of stagnancy and bigotry and depression. For Jess to reframe the late 90s upstate experience and say that the isolation we felt holds possibilities of intimacy and connection was illuminating for me. He grew up further out from the center of Syracuse, in the farmland and in quieter towns. I loved his description of how wild it is and all the places there are to hide.
Rah: In your works which are often character-driven, you reference queer history and a culture of drag performance. How are you queering the genre of documentary? Are there any strategies or techniques that you’re using to subvert or challenge queer represenation in this particular medium?
Sunita: I wish I could say I have consciously tried to queer any genres. I haven’t, but queerness is visibly embedded in what I make. There are queer characters, challenges to the binary view of gender, or challenges to normativity more broadly in all of my works. The reasons for this aren’t mission-driven so much as born of the fact that I was forged in a queer community (Thank my stars! Such radical love and friendship I’ve known!) and that is the perspective from which I continue to see.
Sunita Prasad, still from Presumptuous, ongoing.
In the case of Visits, obviously the topic itself is queerness and it features queer people, but the structure I landed on is also in contrast to normative documentary practices. In the video, Jess is talking in the car, and his finger moves forward in the shape of a spring. He quotes Jack Waters describing sexuality and identity as a spiral. Rather than tell a linear story, I thought about the film as a spiral through the locations we visit, cycling through each one while moving further ahead in the conceptual progression each time.
Rah: During the site visit to Jess’s high school, the viewer observes a playful interaction: he drapes his body over your body, you hold him up, stretch him out and expose his heart to the sky. This was a endearing gesture that illustrates the profound essence of queer kinship–play, intimacy, vulnerablity, and protection. How does this video explore queer kinship, and speak to the importance of building alternative familial relationships?
Sunita: This video is all about queer kinship. The idea to go to these places together occurred to me because I felt like there was another chapter of kinship that Jess and I came so close to having with each other, but missed out on. I also have a lot of fraught feelings about that place with regard to queerness, and I sort of thought that was true of every queer kid from there. But Jess has this completely different perspective, and taking these visits with him —someone also from there, but who became part of my queer extended family after I moved away— was very healing for me personally. What a unique and lucky opportunity it was. He described the weekend as having a magic to it for him as well, so I’m really glad for that!
Rah: I was raised in diaspora and as a queer person-of-colour having to negotiate multiple racial and linguistic frameworks: these experiences have shaped my identity. Can you speak about the intersections within your own identity, and the experiences of growing up as a queer diasporic woman? How has your Indian heritage affected how you express your sexuality in different contexts? Like other parts of Asia, the Near East, and Africa, homosocial cultural norms exist at the societal level, yet homophobia runs rampant. Could you discuss how you navigate the homosocial cultural norms in South Asian cultures, and the frictions these pose with outwardly gay or queer identities?
Sunita: This is a big one. In retrospect, I wish I had trusted my diasporic Indian community more when I was younger. I learned as an adult that they are actually a lot more accepting and progressive than the stereotypes. I think they are a little unique in that way. There are certainly South Asian enclaves in the U.S. that are more conservative and stringent. Ours happens to include former Marxist agitators and a lot of feminist aunties. But as a teenager and for a long time afterwards, I was really sure that being out in our community was not possible. I mean, most of the parents did not even condone heterosexual dating in high school, so sexuality of any kind was difficult to discuss.
Later in life, I found myself pregnant and unmarried and decided to carry the pregnancy and have my kid. I have never been more nervous about anything in my life than I was to tell my Mom. Mainly because I was so worried about how other people would talk about and treat her, and I hated to deliver her that blow. To my utter surprise and without missing a beat, she said the best thing she has ever said to me: “The people who care about us won’t judge us, and the people who judge us we don’t care about.” And it turned out: everyone in our Syracuse Indian community cares about us. We have the handmade quilts and baby sweaters to prove it.
Then about a year ago, a young person among us came out as trans. His dad sent a letter to everyone in the community with his corrected name and pronouns. I can’t speak to how this past year has been for that person, but what I witnessed from my mom was an immediate desire to express her solidarity and care. It made me feel guilty, honestly, that I didn’t do a better job of paving the way for that kid by coming out as a teen and braving the reactions of these people who actually just really love us.
Rah: In the West, there is an assumption of a universal gay experience and western homocultual practices are imposed on non western subjects. For example, the process of “coming out” is complicated for people in the diasporas who are already having to negotiate multiple cultural expectations. Can you tell me about your “coming out” journey?
Sunita: Starting in my late teens and early 20s, there was a generational split in my mind where I would quietly come out to people in the Indian community that were in my generation: my sisters, cousins, and other South Asians in my school. But it was definitely left unspoken with anyone from the generation before back then.
What’s exciting to me is the shift I’m seeing in our culture of origin now. There are some really exciting things happening in India right now. Queer activism has started to burgeon more visibly within the past decade or so. And one could make the case that Western cultural imperialism is a part of that. But I think this could discount the really hard organizing work that appears to be happening on the ground in India. It is still difficult and in many cases dangerous to be queer and out in South Asia (as it continues to be in some parts of the US), but a movement has been building, and I am excited to see what's next for South Asian queers the world over.
Rah: The LGBTQ+ acronym has about seventeen orientations and gender categories, and in the video you highlighted the limitations of these categories as you personally don’t identify or feel that these categories encapsulate your unique queer positionality. You were also questioning whether you can claim a queer identity as you are now in a heterosexual relationship. In the queer community, members who find themselves in hetero relationships are sometimes confronted with a sense of abandonment either by their community or internally. Your story fills an important gap in the conversation, can you elaborate on this experience?
Sunita: The queer community that I came of age in had a lot of fluidity and not a huge amount of expectation to meet a standard. So they have never abandoned me or made me feel “less-than” in my queerness. But I do not like the feeling of not being out. The way in which I walk through the world right now, I often feel not out. Visits voices my discomfort and frustration with that feeling. Making this work allowed me to articulate it for perhaps the first time.
Rah: Thank you Sunita for the open and generous conversation. The video is truly rich and profound and I’m excited for the Temp Files community to see it. Before we finish the interview, I would like to know if you are working on any exciting new projects?
Sunita: This current project is a work-in-progress, and I am interested in seeing how much further I can explore this subject. I have also been concentrating on writing recently. I wrote a play called BALD which had a public reading right before the initial pandemic lockdown. I plan to return to that, but lately I have been more focused on a screenwriting project. One that does center on themes of sexuality in historic India, actually!