Features Regular Columns Guest Column: Amy Oden - (Sub)Culture Shock

Regular Columns: Guest Column: Amy Oden - (Sub)Culture Shock


After working in national television for almost eight years, Amy completed her first film in 2011, and her Master of Arts in 2012. She is currently working on her second documentary feature while teaching at the University of Guam.

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Somehow my life has taken me in a direction in the past year which has involved an incredible amount of traveling. I’m definitely not complaining. It can be tiring, but it feels like “living the dream” to a certain extent, and mobility is absolutely a privilege. I was lucky enough to do a tour in Europe this summer with my first film, From the Back of the Room, which is about women in DIY. No more than ten days after that trip, I was packed up and departing for Guam, where I’m living now. Here I work as a gender studies adjunct at the University, but in my spare time I’m working on my second documentary feature, Exotic, which looks at the commercial sex industry on this heavily colonized, militarized island.

Eurocentric tendencies run rampant in the mainland United States, especially in artistic and activist subcultures. Often, this is not without merit. A few of the cinemas I screened in were “Folkets Bio” cinemas, or “people’s cinemas.” “People’s” arts and culture centers sprang up across Europe during the Industrial Revolution, as a component to the strengthening of the unions. The focus of these places is similar to the idea behind Shakespeare in the Park – bringing arts and culture to the proletariat – something that you see precious little of in the mainland United States. There are also “people’s schools.”

Especially in Sweden, the government is very interested in supporting the circulation of arts and culture. This sustenance seems to have helped foster pockets of the citizenry that contain energetic and engaging artistic vision. For instance, I met a girl in Gothenburg who is working on a queer musical based around a gender-neutral main character who is upset about the rise of conservatism within Swedish government (granted, their idea of “conservative” is still light years more liberal than ours). The production of this film has involved the reservation of entire public transport train cars for dance numbers: something only a John Waters or a John Cameron Mitchell could likely command in the States. She and I discussed the impact that neoliberalism is having on the country, diversity among activists, and gentrification and social welfare. Indeed, most of the young people I met in Europe were actively interested in these types of issues.

amy-oden.jpgHowever, one thing that I did notice in the Swedish and German artistic communities was a relative silence surrounding racial issues. I learned that dreadlocks are just now becoming a topic of discussion in the Berlin queerpunk scene, but neither the Germans nor the Swedes that I talked to realized that Mohawks were a style taken from native people. A lot of this has to do with geography—I’m sure there are tons of racial issues in other parts of the world that I’m unaware of—but I found it surprising in a community that pegs itself as politically conscious. One thing I did learn about was the “Anti-German” leftist movement, which is so pro-Judaism that it’s anti-Palestine. More proof that the issues you take a stand on are directly related to your geographic and temporal location in the world.

Due to this relationship between local and mentality, it should come as no surprise that many of the people I’ve met in Guam feel removed from national politics. When you’re disenfranchised – folks here have no say in federal elections, but local candidacies are huge – the head of the American government may not seem all that important to you. Although they have no say about it, most Guamanians do care about military spending, however, as the armed forces constitute roughly a third of the area on the island and almost half of the local economy. Logically, perhaps, social issues are of import here: the largest-looming giant among them being race. Discussions around racial issues, tradition, and assimilation are unquestionably what take up the most space during the conversations I have with young folks on the island. People here are very astute and conscious of the hierarchies they exist in, both on-island and globally.

At first glance there’s no youth culture besides some non-profits and church groups, and the politics behind the art community seem to have been swallowed up and neutralized by the tourism industry that sustains (the other) half of the economy here. However, once you find an in-road, you discover a vibrant and varying community, full of diverse creativity.

There is a huge nightlife scene in Guam, mostly centered around downtown Tumon, where the majority of the bars and restaurants are located. Strip clubs and karaoke bars are huge there – due partially to the military presence – but there are pockets of alternative entertainment to be found. There is an amateur strip night where men, women and everyone in-between enter the contests, which showcase an array of body types on a weekly basis. There is an all-queen-of-color drag show, which is mind-blowingly good, and the industrial areas of town are home to clusters of bars that serve the array of blue-collar contractors, who migrate to work here from other parts of Asia. Farmer’s markets and fiestas occur on an almost constant basis, island-wide, and both are extremely community-oriented, except for the versions that are ramped up for tourists in the capital.

Tourism freezes some of these cultural institutions, making them palatable to outsiders. You could say they’re not part of the “real” Guam, but I think the “real” Guam is somewhere between the farmer’s market down my street, and the one where Japanese visitors come in busloads to eat pork on a stick, while Chamorro musicians and the occasional Navy cover band perform. Guam is a complicated place, and it can feel like a microcosmic demonstration of the variations between pride, accommodation, and resistance that occur in the post-colonial world. Some cultural institutions here are fueled by a palatable (and I would argue healthy) dissent about the status quo. For instance, the autonomy movement is thriving in organizations like “We Are Guahan.” Also, on the other end of the spectrum, the Spanish colonial practice of cockfighting still happens here, although I have yet to see it.

So, is the division between culture and sub-culture still useful to maintain in these settings? Maybe, at times, yes. Somehow it seems easier to draw that distinction in Europe, where political movements are large and well-funded. But what constitutes sub-culture when the government is sponsoring your efforts? Places like Guam, however, highlight the importance of acknowledging arts and culture outside of our “scenes,” and demonstrate that sub-culture is always a part of any local cultural landscape that it takes place in.

Amy Oden's Exotic teaser trailer

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Posted on Sept. 19, 2012, 6:56 a.m.

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Guest Column: Amy Oden - (Sub)Culture Shock

Posted on Sept. 19, 2012, 6:56 a.m.

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