An image of four people watching and discussing the piece as trails of Chinese calligraphy ink make their way across the billowing fabric.
Art Culture Installations Performance

Untitled (we still land, home)

A physical data art installation with Chinese calligraphy ink that drips onto billowing fabric. A story about immigration—of arriving in a new country filled with hope and finding a reality vastly different—and about rage, generational trauma, and resilience.


Shirley Wu


Despina Papadopoulos


“Untitled (we still land, home)” is a physical data art installation, where Chinese calligraphy ink drips from above, each representing a number of Chinese immigrants who arrived in America between 1850 to present.  The ink lands on billowing fabric, which I think of as the American land, and the fans underneath are the American sentiments against Chinese immigration that are literally turning the fabric into difficult terrain for the ink to land on. Over the course of several hours, the ink makes its slow, methodical journey from the far side of the fabric all the way to the front, dispensing ink according to immigration data from 1850 to now. This piece is inspired by my experiences as a Chinese-American woman, and the quiet trauma I inherited from my parents who, by the time I was 10 years old, had made four life-changing moves to three new countries—from China to the Philippines, the Philippines back to China, China to Japan, and Japan to America.  In the process of working on this piece, I have come to realize that I was asking it questions I could never bring myself to ask my parents: what was it like to leave home and start over and over far from your full support networks?  Did you have to field discrimination and fight to survive, did you ever feel a powerlessness, a voicelessness in each new country with each new language? Did you ever expect to pass that down to me? The piece answers me with every ink drop that lands not where it intended, but messily, scattering in every direction, freely.  And I think about all the lives that each ink drop represents, all the lives lived, struggled, and settled—a thousand different imaginings of a million different lives. And I am reminded that even if we don’t land where we expected, we still land, and we make homes for ourselves.  And there is incredible beauty in that resilience.

An image of four people watching and discussing the piece as trails of Chinese calligraphy ink make their way across the billowing fabric.


As a starting point, I was inspired by a passage from Stephanie Foo’s What My Bones Know, where she writes: "I realized that my community [in San Jose] was built in large part from the wreckage of America's brutal proxy wars against communism.  America massacred civilians in No Gun Ri and My Lai, it poisoned fields of crops and buried mines, it left behind machine guns in the wrong hands and let houses turn to rubble.  San Jose is America's consolation prize for those who lost Saigon and Seoul. I also spoke to dozens of Asian children of immigrants—Asians of my generation[...]everyone always wanted me to know that their parents were good people.  They came here with nothing; they overcame so much.  They're just, you know.  Stoic.  Anxious.  Quiet." I became fascinated with this dichotomy of being an immigrant arriving in a new country so filled with hope and expectations, and finding a reality vastly different.  I started to research into Chinese-American history, about the anti-Chinese riots, lynchings, and massacres between the 1870s to 1890s, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, repealed only in 1943 because of America’s alliance with China in WWII, the influx of students and professionals from 1960s onward that perpetrated the “model minority” myth, and most recently the anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. I was struck by this constant shifting of Chinese peoples’ “place” in America, of feeling like we’re on perpetually uneven ground—hence the use of roiling fabric.  And from that research, I was also able to find workbooks of immigration statistics from 1820 to 2020 that I use to calculate the amount and timing of dispensing the Chinese calligraphy ink. Finally, serendipitously, Magnetic North & Taiyo-Na’s song “Home:Word” played on shuffle as I was deep in conceptualizing this piece—and in that instant I knew that this piece was about resilience and finding home.

Technical Details

There are four main parts to this project. First, the linear actuator suspended from the ceiling, that drives the ink carriage forward with a stepper motor.  I designed and 3D printed custom clamps so that the linear actuator could be attached to two threaded rods clamped to the grid system. Second, the ink carriage with a reservoir of Chinese calligraphy ink, a peristaltic pump to programmatically dispense the ink, and a large power bank to power the pump so that I didn’t need an extension cord coming out of the moving carriage. Both the stepper motor and the pump are attached to their own Arduino Nano 33 IoTs, so that I could control them simultaneously via Bluetooth from the ground.  This was important not only because the whole setup was not easily reachable, but also to make sure that the rate at which the ink carriage moved and the ink was dispensed was coordinated according to the immigration data. Third, I tested three different types of fans for their size and discreteness, programmability, and power.  For the one I settled on, I realized I wanted to control its wind direction, and designed and 3D printed a custom enclosure where I could use a servo motor to control the fins. Finally, I tested four different types of fabric across three dimensions: their absorbency (I wanted the ink to be able to bounce and scatter, so it couldn’t be too absorbent), weight (it had to be lightweight enough that even at 9ft long the fans could affect it), and meaning/symbolism.  In the end, I chose a light chiffon as it tested very well in the first two categories.

An animated gif of white chiffon fabric billowing because of the wind the two fans underneath are creating.An animated gif of a close-up shot of a fan underneath the fabric, the fins on the custom enclosure rotating to change wind direction and move the fabric.An animated gif of a close-up shot of ink dripping onto the fabric, scattering and leaving trails.An animated gif of a close-up shot of the ink carriage making its way across the linear actuator.