Interview with Margo Machida, Co-Founder, Godzilla

Posted September 10, 2010 by Anonymous
Alexandra Chang, Director of Public Programs and Research Manager, A/P/A Institute, NYU
Interview Date: 
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Person Interviewed: 
Margo Machida, Co-Founder, Godzilla
Place of Interview: 
New York, NY


The following oral history transcript is the result of a tape-recorded interview with Margo Machida on March 10, 2009. The interview took place in New York City, New York, and was conducted by Alexandra Chang. This interview was funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Margo Machida and Alexandra Chang have reviewed the transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Screenshot of Margo Machida

ALEXANDRA CHANG: Alright so now we’re rolling. [laughs] 

MARGO MACHIDA: Now we’re rolling. Okay. 

CHANG: Okay, so I thought that we could begin with pre-Godzilla so we could learn about its gestation and why it was conceived. And so I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about Basement workshop and your participation for Asian American Art agency, and then what your participation was and how it affected you. 

MACHIDA: Sure. I originally came to New York City in 1968, a moment that saw an incredible upsurge of activism of all kinds—the anti-war movement, the women’s movement. And what was also happening was the rise of community arts movement. New York Chinatown was this vector where all these things were happening. It was this amazingly productive and exciting time. It was there that I first had contact with Basement Workshop, a grassroots arts organization. It’s sort of a long progression. I moved to Chinatown in the late 1970s and had a loft on East Broadway and they were around the corner on Catherine Street. I’d been hearing about this group, and I was interested because I was a painter. 

CHANG: How did you hear about the group? 

MACHIDA: I guess from other artists and writers. I’d been meeting people along the way. I was going to poetry readings at St. Mark’s Church on the Bowery, performances at La Mama Theater, all this kind of stuff. There was a whole scene on the Lower East Side. I’d been hearing about this group, and this incredible poet, Fay Chiang who ran Basement. I got really interested in the idea that there was this cultural organization that was activist, and Asian American centered. This was all new to me because as I said, I had not that long before come from Hawaii, where there wasn’t that kind of a scene. I started to go to some of their events and the exhibitions and the readings. At that time Jessica Hagedorn was involved and so there was this blend of poetry and performance and music and visual art. And this was really the first time I was meeting people who were seriously involved in the arts, and also really committed to trying to bring forward this idea of an Asian American culture. You know, a visual culture, a performing culture. They were also trying to connect art making to the conditions in the community and this sense of a larger social mission. And I think that was really revolutionary to me. So I began to become more involved with Basement. And I actually worked for them for a while. I was doing— 

CHANG: What did you do? 

MACHIDA: Oh, I was doing press releases and other writing. Actually, one of my first pieces of writing on Asian American art was for one of Epoxy Group’s early shows there. 

CHANG: Oh, what was that? 

MACHIDA: It was for their Thirty-Six Tactics project. Anyway, it was just this different vision of how to be an activist, how to think collaboratively; it’s both about you as an individual creator, and also about how you share a larger sense of being part of something, and are collectively trying to build a history, trying to use visual culture as an expressive tool and a documentary tool to bring forward the lived experiences of communities. It was really a turning point moment for me. This would have been the late seventies. I came in relatively late, because Basement had been formed in the early seventies. So then I got more and more interested and I started to deal with family history and identity questions in my own painting. That got me involved with thinking about how I could integrate artistic production and cultural production. The thing about Basement was that people, as artists, didn’t just do their own work, but they were also thinking about how to create a body of writing and documentation about the range of cultural production that was out there. So people were wearing many hats. You know, it wasn’t just enough to be a producer, but you also had to help to create the conditions to build this dialog in this area. 

CHANG: So you had mentioned that you were a writer coming to New York, so I mean… 

MACHIDA: Yeah, I was. 

CHANG: …was it specifically as— I mean, were you working on art? Or was it, you know, creative writing? 

MACHIDA: Actually, it was creative writing. I came with aspirations to be a fiction writer and a poet. I was interested in pursuing English, which is why I went to NYU. I was also pursuing psychology, because I was interested in people’s motivations for the things they do, which later played into my interest in orality and understanding artists’ reasons for creating their work. I was into the applied end of it, rather than the theories of psychology, and later pursued training to become a therapist. This all came together around my interest in doing interviews with artists. These same skills became tools for me for this investigation of art and artists. 

CHANG: So did Basement, really that kind of cauldron, influence you to become then, a cultural critic and— 

MACHIDA: Yes. It definitely did inspire me to get involved with cultural criticism. At one end there’s the need for documentation, but then there’s also the question of how do you create a body of critical thought around that art. In other words, how do you analyze this work? How do you contextualize it? Where was the Asian American art history? Most people recognized that there really was not very much scholarship or critical writing at that time. And even now, it’s still relatively nascent. But certainly, at that time, it was clear that we had a lot to do. And as I say, it wasn’t just strictly producing a record of what’s going on, but also the question of how are we going to think about the different functions of the art that’s being produced? You know, a social function, a critical function and a creative function for artists. So that definitely was part of it. And so we had to do it all. Basically, anybody who was involved at that time really had a sense that we had a shared mission. Even if our politics weren’t the same -- I mean, everybody was there, from the very far left to more mainstream liberals -- [chuckles] there was this notion that some kind of vision of an Asian American culture was important. How that was going to take shape was really open to what people were each individually willing to do to move it forward. 

CHANG: So I was also wondering, then— because there seems to be a period of time between Basement Workshop and the formation of Godzilla, like a few years. And so what was developing with you at the time in your mind, as both a painter and a writer and a curator? And what was different between, Basement and this shift that then created Godzilla? 

MACHIDA: Well, you know, it’s an interesting question. Basement came out of the post-Civil Rights era—the anti-war movement, multiculturalism, and also this idea of forming connections between art and community. It was a certain kind of activist period. But I think that in between the two, what I noticed [was a significant shift in the environment], just being part of the art world [and seeing what was happening in New York.] I was exhibiting pretty actively and I worked for New Museum of Contemporary Art during the 1980s, probably for five or six years. 

CHANG: What were you working there as? 

MACHIDA: I was working on fundraising and membership. So I got to spend a lot of time looking at the institution, and also looking at contemporary artists. I actually contributed to the Decade show as a kind of informal advisor, and then I wrote an essay for the accompanying catalog. The Decade show was mounted in 1990 at the New Museum, Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was a kind of a summary of what people thought was important in the eighties, which of course didactually center on different kinds of identity questions. So it comes right up to the moment when we formed Godzilla. So anyway, I was around the art world, and I was also in contact with a lot of Asian American artists because of my prior involvement with Basement and other groups like Asian American Arts Alliance and Asian American Arts Centre. I think what we noticed was that there was a real shift in the environment because of the post-’65 waves of new Asian immigration, once the federal immigration laws were struck down in 1965 and the restrictions on prior immigration were lifted. 

What you really saw, in a couple of decades, is this enormous influx of new Asian immigrants. That included, of course, numbers of artists. We were witnessing this palpable shift in the art world – and the Asian diasporic art world – as both immigrants and also transients coming through from Asia and from other parts of the world were becoming a larger presence in New York. And so we were thinking, well, this is obviously a very pivotal moment. The arts groups that had been around were either based in particular communities, or in some way connected to the prior Asian American movement, which was very much about claiming an American identity. So we’re seeing a lot of new immigrants coming in who didn’t necessarily share that background. Part of the question was, well, how do you deal with that? How do you engage with them and their ideas as an Asian American? I’m a third generation Japanese American from Hawaii. How do you engage with these new artists? How do you understand their issues? How do you create a conversation between these people and prior generations of immigrants? Which of course, included my own generation. So the nineties is really very, very important as a transitional moment. It was a real challenge to figure out how to do that. So the people that I knew and our various arts groups began to think about what kind of platform do we need, that addresses the shift to a much more obviously transnational moment, when prior domestic identity politics was insufficient as a way of understanding what was going on now? 

CHANG: Were these formal meetings with people or just casual conversations that were— 

MACHIDA: [Over Chang] No, this was just mostly— It was like a groundswell, organic kind of thing. Some of us were involved in other kinds of groups together. But I actually think one of the misperceptions about Godzilla was that it came directly out of the earlier movement. And that actually wasn’t true. I had originally met both Ken Chu and Bing Lee [the co-founders of Godzilla] through the Asian American Arts Center. At different points, Ken and I were artists in residence working with Bob Lee. That was actually another important thing for me, because I was working with the Asian American slide archive that Bob had established. It was through that archive that I first saw Ken’s work. And so I got really interested in the idea of wanting to curate a show that was based on issues of identity. I paid Ken an early studio visit, and that’s how we got to know each other. Ken and Bing Lee and I got together later to discuss what has to happen now. We had very different visions of what needed to be done. We knew the moment was right to create some type of new platform for a discussion to happen. We weren’t quite sure what form it should take. And I think that Ken’s idea—which I’m sure you’ll be hearing from him—was to establish an Asian American art museum. That was always his long-term mission. One that could both register the history of prior Asian-American artists’ production and also be a public face that could allow for this kind of exploratory conversation. And then Bing’s idea was, I think, more oriented towards networking and the archives that we needed to have. I likewise felt documentation was very important. But I also thought that there had to be some kind of a vehicle that could promote a broader conversation, like a newsletter format or something that could extend beyond just people who were in New York, which is how Godzilla ultimately started. It would enable us to share information, talk about shows that were happening around the country. There was the sense that there was a lot of parallel activity in different places, particularly in the major urban centers like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, D.C., Boston, and Philadelphia. These were places we knew things were going on. 

CHANG: I was wondering— Well, just to rewind just a little bit, can you tell me the circumstances of that meeting? I mean, where it was, was it decided that it was going to— 

MACHIDA: [Over Chang] Oh, it was in my loft. [laughs] 

CHANG: So was it kind of casual, or did you say, “We have to meet. We have to talk about this”? 

MACHIDA: Well, first of all, by this time I’d moved to Brooklyn. And so Brooklyn was the birthplace of this— [laughs] 

CHANG: Where in Brooklyn was it? Park Slope or— 

MACHIDA: It was in downtown Brooklyn, right behind Fulton Mall. And so we had the first meeting there. What was the second part of the question? 

CHANG: If it was that you had gone together— that you had decided to have this meeting specifically to talk about this, or was it something that kind of organically, like this conversation, grew up and then— 

MACHIDA: No, actually, by that time, we’d been kicking around these ideas of what had to happen. As far as I recall, that meeting was specifically to talk about what we wanted to do. We wanted to form some kind of group. We realized with a project like that, there is no way to do anything unless you first create a kind of a core community. Neither Ken nor Bing was actively involved with Basement. Our trajectories were different. Some folks who were involved in Basement, and who also became involved with Godzilla, would say later that there was a direct connection. And it’s not exactly true. As I said, there were different streams feeding into its formation at a certain moment. Since both Ken and Bing were immigrant artists, they were very sensitive and aware about the changes taking place in the local Asian arts communities. Bing was part of these immigrant networks, in New York, in Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. So they brought that to the table. 

CHANG: And so how did you go about actually contacting the first group that would then have a meeting and be Godzilla. How did you find the people? I mean, you knew them? Did you invite specific people? 

MACHIDA: Mm-hm. Well, I guess I would back that up. Because as I said, each one of us probably came with a different sort of network and contacts. Some of us knew each other through various groups like the Asian American Arts Alliance and others through which we also were meeting. For myself, I had started out in 1989, with this Rockefeller Foundation Grant, through Asian/American Center at Queens College, when Jack (John Kuo Wei) Tchen was the director. That one-year fellowship gave me time to do foundational research on Asian American artists. In other words, I was already interested, because of my prior involvement with Basement, in trying to write about Asian American art and artists. I was very committed to bottom-up, artist-centered research, which involved oral history interviews with Asian American artists. And I was particularly interested in people who were using their art to address matters of identity, culture, history, and place. So this precedes Godzilla. Some of the artists who I met through that research I would later contact to see if they were interested in doing something together, something that became Godzilla. I interviewed in excess of fifty, sixty artists in the course of that year, and with the travel support, I was able to go up and down the East Coast. I went up as far as Boston, and as far down as D.C. So I was beginning to get a sense of some of the people who were around and working on these issues. Plus, these people were going back and forth to New York. We would see each other at these different events and that’s what I mean by an organic connection. In our conversations, there was a kind of a groundswell interest in the idea of an Asian American culture or Asian American identity. Therefore, when it came time to think about who we could call upon, some of those names came up, such as Yong Soon Min and Tomie Arai, who had been a long-time activist in the New York Asian American arts community. Tomie is someone I did meet at Basement, when I first became aware of her work as a public muralist. I also learned, through her, about Lower East Side Print Workshop and some of the other places where artists who were interested in doing more social activist work were producing art. When I first came around the New York art scene, one of the places I went to was Bob Blackburn’s Printmaking Workshop. And that’s a place that I think almost every artist—of color, certainly—at one point or another passed through. In other words, there are circuits that many of us traveled on, that I think made me aware of certain people. 

CHANG: So did you make a call out for people, and then there was going to be that first meeting? 

MACHIDA: Yeah, basically. Some of it was more targeted, actually contacting specific people that we knew were interested in these kind of ideas. And then there was a more general call to other people they knew. The first meeting took place in downtown Brooklyn. It was through Rotunda Gallery, a nonprofit locally sponsored art space. They had an office nearby, and so they became the venue for our first meeting. 

CHANG: How many people were at the meeting? Do you recall? 

MACHIDA: I would say there were about fifteen to twenty people. But you know, memory can be faulty. I mean, there were enough there to at least start a conversation and to see what people felt was the most important thing to do. Is it to make shows? Is it to create a newsletter? How many people actually subscribed to the idea of trying to go for an Asian American art museum, which is like really a lofty goal? So in that sense, it was very open-ended. I think the main thing that we did agree upon was that there needed to be documentation of what was going on and who’s making art, and of the shows that were happening that largely passed unnoticed. There were a lot of people having group shows or small two-person shows, and even one-person shows that just flew under the radar. Because at that time, there was still a real divide between the mainstream art world and what was happening, certainly, in the communities. You know, the community arts groups and even the alternative spaces in SoHo. There was very little crossover. 

CHANG: For the newsletter, then, how did that grow out of documentation? Was there a committee that decided to launch it? You had mentioned your interest in it, so how did you help it along into being? 

MACHIDA: Of course, everything was done by committee, although I contributed several articles to the early issues. Around that same time, one of the pivotal things that happened was that there had been a Whitney Biennial within a year of Godzilla’s founding. We discovered that— as usual—there had been very little Asian American representation. Godzilla was not organized as a protest group, but advocacy was certainly a part of its mission. It was an extension of what Godzilla was about. One of the earliest newsletters actually documented our efforts to bring this lack of representation of Asian American artists to the Whitney’s and other museums’ attention. That wasn’t the reason the newsletter started. The first one was really just saying that, here we are. Here are the members. We’re interested in starting this dialog. [laughs] 

CHANG: Right. 

MACHIDA: The whole thing was bootstrap. I mean, there was no funding. We did this ourselves. Some of us, fortunately, had very good graphic skills. I wasn’t one of them. I’m a writer, but I’m not a designer. So you know, maybe that’s why you’re hearing more of the writer’s end of this story. 

CHANG: That’s okay. 

MACHIDA: We also had, from the very beginning, listings of exhibitions that other people were sending to us. We knew about arts groups that were active in all the cities I just mentioned. Some of those folks came out of the earlier Asian American movement; in Seattle there were Alan Lau and Kazuko Nakane, [as well as Mayumi Tsutakawa]. In San Francisco, we knew Kearny Street Workshop. Some people were actually going back and forth between the East and West Coast. So in other words, there were certain centers of activity. 

CHANG: I heard mention that there was a Godzilla West? 

MACHIDA: Oh, that was later. 

CHANG: Oh, okay. 

MACHIDA: That was after Godzilla had originally started; the artist Betty Kano and a number of other people in San Francisco were involved. In Boston, there was Asian American Arts Renaissance; I don’t recall some of the names of the groups. But there were definitely clusters of people in each major city. And so we did contact them to try to get information of what was going on in their area of the country. So it became an expanding network. 

CHANG: What type of articles were in the newsletter? 

MACHIDA: The very first issue was really just us talking about wanting to establish a dialog. Depending on people’s interests, it later became centered around a range of different questions. One issue addressed the problems of being associated with ethnic-specific shows and many artists’ uneasy feelings about that. Was it constricting to them? Was it meaningful and generative for them? Were people conflicted about this? By this time, there had been this enormous backlash against identity politics. We were already in the nineties. For some artists, this issue of ethnic “pigeonholing” was really a problem that made them feel both interested in being part of groups like Godzilla, and also wary about it. They didn’t want to ghettoize themselves. So we confronted that issue head-on by creating this issue featuring different members of the group with quite divergent attitudes about it. So I think there was always a space there for getting at issues that really mattered to people at the time. Another big issue was on HIV/AIDS and some of the shows that were coming up around that subject. Ken Chu had organized a very important show on this issue. Another one was education and community. So it was really driven by the interests of different members and their engagements on different levels. One of the distinctive things about the group was that we never felt there was any single agenda that drove it. It was really diverse and also constantly shifting, in terms of the membership. We all contributed money for stuff that had to get done— like, when we had to publish an issue of the newsletter – but we never actually wanted to become a 501(c)(3), because we felt like that would too immediately replicate the structures of institutions that existed. 

CHANG: What was troubling about the structures, as it related to the artist collective and your goals? 

MACHIDA: Well, I think that we wanted to remain fluid. We didn’t want our agenda, necessarily, to be driven by funding, which we saw as a real problem that was endemic for a lot of smaller, grassroots arts groups. It was important to us to maintain independence and fluidity so that we didn’t have to replicate that model, where there had to be the board of directors and there had to be a fixed leadership, because we didn’t think that actually reflected the reality of our situation. In other words, we wanted to be able to change leadership as people came forward, to reflect the differences in the composition of the group. People moved on, people transited in and out. And it felt important to maintain that, to be responsive and flexible, rather than trying to create yet another institution. 

CHANG: Can you tell me a little bit about how the group grew from the initial fifteen or so people? Like was it an immediate swell? Or did the word get out really quickly? 

MACHIDA: It did. You know, it was quite remarkable. I guess that we just hit upon a moment where there was a real need. We said, okay, we’re going to organize these slide slams, basically, where anybody could come in and show work and talk about work. And we would hold them in people’s lofts. Michi Itami’s loft [on Grand Street, in Soho] was the scene of many of the early gatherings. Eugenie Tsai’s loft was home to a couple of these events. Also different alternative spaces, including Art in General, Artists Space, and Alternative Museum, were used at one point. The other thing that was very important to us was that we didn’t want it to have only one location, because we didn’t want it to become associated with any single ethnic community. For instance, if we had decided to try to find a space in Chinatown, that would have been associated with a certain sort of East-Asian-centric or Chinese-centric orientation. Whereas we felt that our membership was really varied. It wasn’t just Japanese and Chinese, but it was also Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese. We even had people from Kazakhstan who were coming through. It was very mixed, and also multi-generational, so there were a lot of new immigrants, and then there were the US-born. So if we tried to find just one location that was not the message that we wanted to give out. In other words, we really wanted to indicate that we were open, that we were not tied to any particular single community. So all of these considerations obviated against forming the usual sort of community arts group. So it was a very different model than what had existed up until that time. Most groups did feel the need to go the nonprofit route. But deciding not to institutionalize also made Godzilla vulnerable as well. On the one hand, it was necessary, given what we wanted to do with the group. And the fact that we knew the leadership would turn over. Meaning— 

CHANG: Right, right. 

MACHIDA: In the beginning, yes, it was Ken, Bing, and me and a couple of others. But we also knew that we were a certain generation. We always envisioned that we were going to step down and the next group, whoever that might be, would then take over. 

CHANG: Can you tell me a little bit about— There seems to have been kind of a— almost like a next generation, as you were talking about, that did occur during that time with the new immigration from Southeast Asia and whatnot, with people like Skowmon and Athena coming in. 


CHANG: What was that like when that happened? When did it happen? And also there was the exhibition Urban Encounters, and maybe you could talk a little bit about that. MACHIDA: I was most directly involved with Godzilla, to be honest, during the first four or five years. As new people filtered in and the organization began to change, I became less directly involved. So most of my insight is really about the formative years. I also wanted to add—when you were asking about how this thing exponentially grew—that when we started doing these slide slams, there’d be a hundred, 200 people who would show up for these events. And it was remarkable. I think it was unexpected. 

CHANG: How did you make the call for the slideslams? Was it within the newsletter? 

MACHIDA: Well, it was through the newsletter, but also just through our regular— through our various networks, and word of mouth. We saw people we’d never seen before show up at these things. There was a real need. If you create the platform, then it’s kind of an open question to see what’s going to evolve from it. 

CHANG: Do you think also that the letter to the Whitney that you all had presented, was that something that kind of made you known as a group and thus, people knew about you and wanted to be part of it? And can you talk more about that a little bit? 

MACHIDA: Oh, yes. Sure. As I said, the ’91 Biennial was quite troubling to us because we saw that once again, in painting and sculpture, there were virtually no works by Asian Americans. And there had not been for quite a long time. One of us did some archival research on that and discovered this persistent pattern. In media, you would have Nam June Paik and maybe one or two others. We felt that it was important to bring this issue forward because the Whitney Biennial is regarded as a standard for the most exciting, the most important new American art that’s out there -- so we felt that this lack of recognition was really disturbing. So what we did is that a committee of us drafted a letter that we sent to David Ross. David Ross was then the director of the Whitney; he’d just gotten there. We said that we’d like to have a meeting to talk about this, and that we were happy to provide them with names of artists and their contact information. We specifically did not include any of our own members, because that would have been extremely self-serving, and we didn’t want to be seen in that light. Although later on, through scuttlebutt, it was said that we were trying to do that. Anyway, a small group of us—that included Eugenie Tsai, who later became a curator there, and Paul Pfeiffer, who later got one of the major awards—were part of the original group that went. So we did meet with Ross and a couple of other people from the staff. This was at least an attempt to open up a conversation about the need for them to recognize the enormous amount of Asian American work that was being produced. I think it actually did make a mark. Godzilla got a certain notoriety for that. And so yes, I think that that did have an effect in drawing more people to come to our meetings. One of the other significant things about Godzilla is that it wasn’t just artists who were in the group. There were also curators and critics; so it was a kind of— I think interdisciplinary is probably not the right word, but I mean— there were people working in different areas that took part. And we always saw Godzilla that way. 

CHANG: I thought perhaps you might be able to tell us a little bit about—as somebody who was a writer and a curator and developing the discourse—maybe some of the conversation topics that you might have had with others such as Alice Yang or with Eugenie, or with other people that were specifically writers and curators as well, within the group. 

MACHIDA: Well, I know Godzilla organized a public forum with curators, critics, and artists at Artists Space, but I think maybe I’ll talk more personally about my interests during this period. Early on, I had a number of preliminary conversations with Alice and Karin Higa, who was also part of the group. Those of us who were writers were thinking about the need to do some kind of publication, like a book of collected critical and scholarly writings on Asian American art. For us, the idea of documentation and of bringing together critical writing, felt very urgent. Alice and Karin and I had actually met to talk about doing a co-edited volume, but because of Alice’s untimely death and various other circumstances, this particular project didn’t go forward. I can’t account for every project that was done through Godzilla, however, because I wasn’t directly involved with many of them. In that sense, Godzilla was a kind of an umbrella, in which different people would take leadership for their own projects. So there were many things happening in parallel. I don’t feel like my account necessarily would be the most accurate in discussing Godzilla’s later trajectory. You would have to talk to Skowmon [Hastanan] or to other people about their particular projects that were done under its aegis. But I think that was part of it, too. As I said, it wasn’t driven by any one person’s vision — and I think that’s something that is very important to emphasize about this group. 

CHANG: One thing I was wondering about was also— There was the idea that the group disseminated, or not disseminated, dissolved at the end, after the Canal Street project with the Why Asia? Exhibition. And yet there was Godzookie that came after it. I mean, was that something that you had talked about and kind of planned, that it is time now to end, but yet we want to have this as a group? 

MACHIDA: Oh. No, it’s kind of the reverse. I mean, some of these folks who started Godzookie were around for later Godzilla meetings, which became more and more sporadic, depending on people’s energies. But no, I think that Godzookie is its own animal. It wasn’t because any of us who were part of the original formation said, oh, yes, now it’s time for us to pass down the mantle. I think people took up the mantle on their own. They saw some things about this kind of group that felt very vital and real to them, but they also knew that they wanted something that reflected their own generation and their own vision. So it was really more that it was driven by people’s need, the same way that, earlier on, Godzilla had been. Depending on who you talk to— I suppose that Godzilla’s swan song really was that last project. There had been talk for a while about Godzilla ending here. Everybody’s got their own version of the story. I would say that Godzilla lived for about eleven years. Which, for a loose group like that, is really quite incredible. This is despite the fact that we never institutionalized, that it always had a very loose agenda, that it was never driven by one vision, but many visions. And in a way, it continually got regenerated by people’s feeling of urgency around particular issues or their desire to do a particular project. Thus Godzilla became the umbrella for those varied initiatives. 

CHANG: For you, did you find it as something that perhaps was like a cauldron for ideas? Because you had done other projects outside of Godzilla, but in relation in Asian American art, such as the 1994 Asia/America show at Asia Society. Was that something that you would be able to talk to Godzilla about or dialog with, you know, people who were also curating? 

MACHIDA: I think that my contacts with artists and writers who were in Godzilla certainly were very, very important in my thinking about how to frame “Asia/America.” [Full title: “Asia/America: Identities in Contemporary Asian American Art.”] That project really focused on foreign-born artists who used their work to deal in different ways with their presence in the US. That exhibition was done for Asia Society in New York, as you know. And in a way, the focus reflected the institutional context, because Asia Society had never done a contemporary show. Since most of their prior exhibitions had been about traditional Asian art, they wanted something that could act as a link to connect Asia and the US. So they were interested in a show that dealt with immigrant generation artists. And that coincided with my own interests in noticing that so many of the artists that I had been talking to and interviewing and meeting through forums like Godzilla also were foreign-born; and were thinking about how they relate to the US, the US art world, and how they were positioned within those contexts. My involvement with Godzilla really sharpened that awareness, and also gave me access to a lot of artists through the slide slams and gatherings. So I think there was something organic about that relationship to my curating. In other words, my involvement with Godzilla gave me a more immediate sense, on the ground, of what was really happening. And so in that regard, it did feed into my process of organizing my thinking about Asia/America. But it was equally true that my research that began in 1989 was foundational. Again, it’s not one stream for me, but rather the grounded understanding that came from my meetings with all of these artists, including those who weren’t necessarily in the show. Hearing about the work and talking with them became grist for my own thinking. These insights were particularly important knowing that I’m third generation. I’m way down the line, in terms of being an Americanized Asian, and therefore my subjectivity is really different. In that sense, the Godzilla connection was very, very important to me. I mean, it wasn’t primary; I wouldn’t say that. But it was certainly extremely— It helped to shape the way that I was thinking about these issues. 

CHANG: I’m just wondering— I mean, because as you were saying, things intersected with Godzilla for you, were there other groups that did come into contact with Godzilla and had a dialogue with the other group, that sort of thing? Or was it mostly like individuals that themselves would then bring their groups to Godzilla from their own experience? 

MACHIDA: Well again, I think it depends on which project you’re talking about. There are some projects people did that were specifically about doing collaboration with other groups. Particularly some of the art in education projects. I would say it was more about the initiatives of individuals who brought their connections to Godzilla. I was somebody who had been around the art scene for a long time, so some of my foundational awareness of other arts groups and communities predated this. For example, before that, I was very influenced by people from Studio Museum in Harlem, which was a really important model for me. To see institutions like that that were foregrounding African American and African diaspora artists and creating these really influential bases for that kind of work to continue. Or at that time, the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, which Nilda Peraza was running—again, very, very important to me to see that, as well as other Latin American and Caribbean oriented groups with which I had direct contact. I think those are the kind of models that meant a lot to me. But again, it wasn’t necessarily because Godzilla was working with them. Working with New Museum at the time that we did the Decade Show also brought me into contact with such people. If you’re asking me on a more personal level what interests me and what was influencing me at the time, it was this kind of nexus: knowing about Basement, knowing about Asian American Arts Center, knowing about other groups around the country that were Asian American-centered, and also knowing about these other ethnic-specific or culture-specific groups that were doing really foundational work. It’s really more about that for me, rather than necessarily using Godzilla as the central lens to frame all of my interests. 

CHANG: I was wondering if you felt that coming in and then after Godzilla, do you feel that the goals that you had come in with were achieved? And were they shifted and achieved, or were the initial goals ones that remained throughout? 

MACHIDA: Well, I suppose my initial goal was— or my initial investment was really around documentation and starting up some kind of network. And in that sense, yeah, I think that my immediate purpose was certainly realized. I also was aware that with a loose group like that, it’s time limited, in that not only does the group necessarily change, but the levels of involvement of different people—including myself, as I moved on to different projects—would also shift. So I didn’t think about it in any permanent sense, like it has to turn into something enduring. Within the context of Godzilla’s life, I feel those goals were certainly realized. And it also provided a chance to work with people that are still, in some cases— I still maintain very close working relationships with. Some of the artists I went on to write about, like Tomie Arai. I knew her in Basement, we worked together in Godzilla, and then ultimately I wrote about her in my new book, Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary, which came out with Duke [University Press] this year. So each of those platforms—Godzilla being one—was yet another opportunity for us to work together. In that sense, it was also really important to me. It’s kind of this virtual community -- even though it doesn’t exist in the same way, since the “lizard” [as we called Godzilla] no longer exists. [laughs] Yet the relationships that started there or developed there live on, even as they change as people change. I find that Godzilla’s had its own life beyond its demise. Because I think it gave a lot of people hope in reinforcing a sense of agency. Like, yes, they can do this. Whatever form it takes — as I said, with Godzookie or the other groups -- they were aware of Godzilla as a certain kind of precedent. It doesn’t mean they necessarily were going to follow the same track, nor should they have. You know, because this was about a different moment, different people, different needs. And that’s as it should be. It’s not necessarily exactly the same kind of activism. It wasn’t necessarily driven by community or identity politics of the past, but by whatever people really feel was most urgent for them right now. But they know that it could be done. Every time they see a bootstraps effort like Godzilla, they’re aware that artists and writers and others, have the capacity to do this, to make a platform for themselves. I think that’s probably what Godzilla’s legacy will be. And also the fact that Godzilla had a certain relationship to the mainstream. It wasn’t the point that the organization was trying to mainstream people, even though it was protesting at the Whitney and so forth. The goal was not to shove people into that track. But it did interface with the art world in a way that I think perhaps some of the older community arts groups had not. Some of that was just an artifact of the fact that a lot of us were working in various arts agencies or in the museums and alternative art spaces. So Godzilla had a different relationship to the mainstream that was a little more fluid, I think. That was another thing that I think was important about its legacy— it’s a conduit that pointed in different directions. 

CHANG: So those are all of my questions I actually have. But I wanted to leave it open for if there’s something perhaps that you would like to add. I know it’s pretty difficult after speaking for an hour to do so, but— 

MACHIDA: [laughs] No, I think that— I suppose what I would add is that I think about Godzilla as a model of a certain kind of dialogism, or the idea that a group can come together strictly around the notion of the need to have these kinds of exchanges with one another, as artists, as thinkers, as writers. And that in itself being a really powerful idea -- The value of dialogism in its own right, no matter what direction it takes. Face-to-face contact is still something that’s very much needed. For all of our talk about new approaches -- well, we can do this on Skype, we can do this on the web; we can network around the world together— all these things are true. But the ability to create sites—Godzilla being one—where people can actually meet and can share their ideas and dialog face to face, I think remains a very powerful imperative. It’s a certain kind of loose notion of community. So without folding back on any traditional notions of community, such open-ended dialogism creates its own conditions, and has its own life, in a way. I would hope that from these conversations, including the one we’re having now, that people can access this, even at a distance. It would encourage other people to want to engage in this. As I said, it doesn’t have to be forever. I don’t think any of us were thinking about this, as something set in stone. Even right now, as you and I are sitting here, this is a piece of Godzilla’s legacy. [laughs] So maybe that’s how I’ll end that. 

CHANG: Great, thank you. 

MACHIDA: You’re welcome. 


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Attached File: