Umi Hsu on making culture meaningful and equitable
Editors note: Since writing this article, Wendy Hsu has changed their name. The article reflects Umi’s new name and all references to Wendy have been updated.
Ethnomusicologist. Cultural data cartographer. Knowledge architect. Ghost pop artist. Movable sound designer. Government strategist. Rock critic.
Researcher and cultural strategist Umi Hsu may have the most diverse job history we’ve ever come across. (It’s hard to fathom two industries more tenuously connected than rock and roll and local legislature.) But Hsu (who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “they”), sees a very clear through line to their work: “Anywhere I’ve gone I’ve always tried to figure out a research question that could better serve the community that I think is underserved.”
With a PhD in ethnomusicology, Hsu has used social media to help map the “Digital Diaspora” of Asian American rock musicians, worked with acousticians to create a sonographic analysis of street noise, and conducted field-based research on the informal economy in Taiwan. But after witnessing firsthand the transformative effects a community-based audio project had on elementary school students, Hsu made the jump to the civic sphere, bringing their expertise in music and digital systems to the City of Los Angeles. They founded an innovation and technology incubator for city staff, and directed digital and GIS projects across the L.A. area. Today, Hsu’s a Digital Strategist for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, leading the creation of the comprehensive “Neighborhood Arts Profile,” a project that aims to map every cultural location and event within Los Angeles, however transitory or ephemeral they may be.
dscout sat down with Hsu to talk about the challenges of mapping and research in a digital-first world, the importance of getting out into the neighborhood, and good ol’ rock and roll.
You have such a diverse background: you’ve gone from getting a PhD in Ethnomusicology to working with the city of Los Angeles. But art and culture have been at the center of all of your work. It seems like that’s the lens through which you approach research.
I’ve always been interested in artists’ experience—the meaning of making art, the community artists are creating, even just generally how artists are surviving in this rapidly changing environment. But I also tend to approach lots of things in life, including research, with a slightly different mentality, which is to question what’s there a little bit. In some ways art is even a good metaphor for that. The research process is just the material that I play with, like an artist has canvas or clay.
The research process is just the material that I play with, like an artist has canvas or clay.
In a way it also seems like “mapping the unmapped” is a central concern for you—your dissertation was about bringing attention to the Asian American rock movement. What was the genesis of that?
It really came from a personal place. I moved to the United States, to Virginia, when I was twelve, and really had a bicultural childhood experience. As an Asian American I was part of a hyper-minority, so I was always pushing boundaries a little bit, thinking about social experiences, the need to broaden existing social categories.
Within rock music, at least in America, there has historically been a black and white dichotomy. Rock music history fascinated me as a way to tell the American story, but I felt like there was something missing there. It didn’t speak to my experience as someone who was outside of the dichotomy. Oftentimes the stories of Asian-ness get wiped out or erased completely. There are actually quite a few musicians of Asian descent playing rock music in the US, but there seemed to be kind of a glass ceiling that was preventing them from being visibly successful.
I wanted to push the envelope and see beyond the categories that were already there. I think that was at the heart of what made me want to be an ethnographer, that desire to question categories of knowledge and social experiences, and get under the surface and deeper into the human experience. I thought the artistic and expressive culture is a way to get at that, that experience. Also, because I as a kid I always found empowerment in expressive culture like music. It felt like that was a place of positivity to engage in a research project.
How do you approach a project like that? Did you literally go out on the road, and hear a lot of rock music?
I ended up being kind of a music producer and journalist. I went to see lots of shows in different cities throughout the east coast. I also created a blog that became kind of a hub for reviews and discussion. This was in 2007-2008, so it was kind of an early version of online networking, and it brought in some of the social networks. So many of the social experiences in the music world were taking place digitally, and it felt like that was an area that was missing in research. It was critical in the ways musicians were forming communities with each other, but it was also a playground for them. I wanted to be able to get as close as possible to that experience, to get that empirical proximity.
Sure, that’s a hallmark of ethnographic research. Immersion, embeddedness, assimilation. When they forget you’re there but you’re just drinking everything up.
So how do you approach that online? That’s a really interesting question.
I think part of it is just spending a lot of time in digital spaces, like MySpace, where musicians are making connections. I’ve experimented with a lot of different digital tools like web scraping and geospatial analysis, using computational techniques and software to embed yourself in the digital community and get a better sense of what that world looks like.
I did a fellowship at Occidental College after my doctorate and ended up creating lots of digital expressions. We did a community audio project in partnership with a local elementary school, and I had the students recount their experiences of learning and education. That totally got me hooked. I thought, “Wow, I can not only do projects about community, but I can actually do something with the community to create a documentary-style audio narrative that’s ethnographically driven.”
It was a chance to uplift and empower the voice of the community, and really think about how research can lead to a positive social consequence. That was the point where I knew I wanted to work in an environment that led to real life impact.
That idea of positive social consequence seems to be a big part of the project you’re working on now, the Los Angeles “Neighborhood Arts Profile.”
It’s a project that explores the hyperlocal cultural vitality of the 200+ neighborhoods in Los Angeles. We want to understand how people actually experience culture, and what’s meaningful to them. If it’s a 3D maker pop-up studio or a spoken word open mic, we want to know what that cultural experience is like and how to better support it as a government agency. For a related project called “Promise Zone Arts,” we’re working with a number of neighborhoods designated by the Obama administration as “Promise Zones,” which are inner-city areas that have traditionally been economically depressed. We’re mapping the cultural amenities and cultural treasures significant to the people living and working there—venues, programs, festivals and events. We want to be open to cultural treasures that aren’t just infrastructure related. That’s the stuff that we already know about. The informal art experiences are harder to capture. For instance, if there’s a drum circle that happens on a particular street corner every other Saturday. It’s hard to know about something transient like that without being embedded.
People in that neighborhood, they just know.
They just know, and if you’re not from the neighborhood, you just don’t know. It gets into interesting questions about how we approach research at the neighborhood level. Data can only get us so far. If you’re not there, if you’re not part of the local community, you don’t have access to the local knowledge.
There’s a cadence that you can’t get from a static dataset, that interaction level data.
Totally. We’re really good at collecting institutional data, organizational data, financial data. But there are whole other worlds, like social media data, and how people are talking to each other. It’s a lot like oral communication. But we can get some of that insight if, for instance, there’s a drum circle and a kid happens to be compelled by it and takes a picture on Instagram.
Whatever we do, it’s important to be conceptualizing it at the neighborhood level. City level or countywide data doesn’t always help us because there are so many tiny, tiny pockets in L.A. The variegated textures of the city’s geography can actually lead to quite a bit of inequality in distribution and experience of resources.
That’s something you hear about Los Angeles, that it can feel like two cities coexisting but not really interacting. That’s certainly not unique just to L.A., but it sounds like it’s something you’re coming up against in your work, that disconnect between neighborhoods, even those that are geographically connected.
For sure. We also want to make sure that people who are not online are served and have a voice, too. One of the biggest challenges is the size. L.A. is a really, really huge city. We serve 4 million residents and 40 million tourists each year. And people come and go. Demographics shift. Communities evolve over time, especially within the last few years. There’s been a lot of commercial development in the city, and a lot of people have flocked to Los Angeles. Data can only get us so far. We have to talk to people to get at the emotional and human layer of the story, what it’s like to be living in the city in the moment of change as artists, as people who care about whether social and cultural communities can thrive. So it does take the active effort, talking to people to find out what’s in the streets, what’s hot at the moment, and how people are navigating between the spaces that are no longer available to them.
So what’s hot at the moment?
Pop-ups. On any given weekend, there are just hundreds of pop-up art events that are happening in informal spaces. Sometimes they’re in hybrid spaces, sometimes they’re in commercial spaces that are not normally associated with arts and culture, but have been repurposed for creative uses. Artists are getting entrepreneurial. They’re selling their products, sometimes as objects, sometimes as experiences, like culinary arts and recording studios. A lot of these spaces and events are more informally constructed through word of mouth and social media, and they create communities that are more ephemeral. That’s the stuff that really escapes much of the official data capturing.
It seems like the artistic space and the civic spaces are becoming more and more intertwined, especially with the recent rise of activism across the country. Is that something you’re seeing in L.A.?
Absolutely, the activism energy is really, really heightened here. L.A. is a city of lots and lots of people of color, immigrants, individuals of different gender identities. Our LGBT community is very active, and I see a lot of energy around people building solidarity across all of these different communities and subcommunities. People are very change-oriented and there are a lot of progressive ideas right now in action about culture, how it can lead to a better world and how the arts can empower us.
I see a lot of ethnographers checking the pulse and listening to the sounds of the city.
So how does widespread enthusiasm like that affect research? Is it just an embarrassment of riches, with people even more willing than usual to engage?
I see a lot of ethnographers checking the pulse and listening to the sounds of the city. I think it’s an opportunity. There is a lot of chatter, a lot of engagement, a lot of people expressing their opinions, lots and lots of voices. To use a musical metaphor, it’s like polyphonic texture. It’s a good time to be doing this work, to be listening to people, trying to figure out how to support the people on the ground who are leading the change.
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