Real-time and Digital Communication
in and about Contested Hawai'i:
The Public Art Project Historic Waikîkî


by

Andrea Feeser

University of Hawai'i at Mânoa


Copyright © 2001 by Andrea Feeser, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.


    ... Hawai'i is "she," the Western image of the Native "female" in her magical allure. And if luck prevails, some of "her" will rub off on you, the visitor. This fictional Hawai'i comes out of the depths of Western sexual sickness which demands a dark, sin-free Native for instant gratification between imperialist wars. The attraction of Hawai'i is stimulated by slick Hollywood movies, saccharine Andy Williams music, and the constant psychological deprivations of maniacal American life. Tourists flock to my Native land for escape, but they are escaping into a state of mind while participating in the destruction of a host people in a Native place. (Trask 180)

  1. Websites can forge connections among texts and images produced by different creators, and through cyberspace, can reach a large audience. However, communication in cyberspace is disembodied and often passively consumed, and is therefore potentially devoid of human energy and urgency. Given these possible strengths and limitations, can digital media function as a tool for the production and dissemination of knowledge about control in Hawai'i contested by Hawaiians (with this term I refer to Hawai'i's indigenous people) and non-Hawaiians? Hawaiians combat American efforts to dominate Hawai'i through physical development and cultural assimilation. Many settlers in Hawai'i resist Hawaiians' challenges because they thwart the American dream of pursuing personal gain. Non-Hawaiians who wish to criticize American colonialism run the risk of ignoring their own complicity with American ideology, and of representing Hawaiian experiences they cannot know. Historic Waikîkî, a public art project with a website component that I am developing with Gaye Chan, confronts this problematic. This essay analyzes our efforts to employ digital media for two purposes: 1) to critique Waikîkî, a capitalist and colonialist simulation of Hawai'i that exemplifies many non-Hawaiians' desire to use Hawai'i to fulfill their own needs; and 2) to connect our audience to Hawaiian representations of Hawai'i that reject non-Hawaiians' appropriation of Hawai'i. In this essay, I examine the ways in which digital media can assist those who do not presume to be able to speak for others, but who hope to work with others to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge they wish to share.

  2. The struggle for Hawaiian sovereignty receives virtually no coverage on the continental U.S., and when many Americans first come to Hawai'i, we imagine that we are visiting or settling into just another one of the United States, which happens to be a tropical paradise. For many Hawaiians, Hawai'i is a colony and much of what makes it paradise has been destroyed by outside explorers, missionaries, and business people paving the way for settlers and tourists.

  3. Prior to contact with the outside world, the Hawaiian island chain had a population of approximately one million (Stannard 45-9). Captain James Cook and his crew arrived from England in 1778, and this initial visit by foreigners opened the door to further contact with outsiders who came to Hawai'i from Britain, Europe, and the United States. Along with Western goods, customs, and languages, foreigners brought to Hawai'i diseases not previously known to Hawaiian people. By 1823, missionaries in Hawai'i numbered the island nation's indigenous population at 134,925 (Schmitt 10).

  4. In 1848, foreign advisors to the Hawaiian king orchestrated a land division system that ultimately displaced Hawaiians from their land (Kame'eleihiwa 201-25). Settlers developed plantations that sustained a major sugar industry, and with the Masters and Servants Act of 1850, labor from China, Japan, and parts of Europe was brought to Hawai'i to work on plantations. The Hawaiian nation was overthrown by foreign businessmen with the help of the U.S. military in 1893, and Hawai'i was officially annexed by the American government in 1898. Hawai'i not only remained an important source of sugar and other products for the U.S., but became an increasingly important military outpost. Hawai'i's economic and strategic value to America resulted in its 1959 inclusion into the federal union. The qualified voters for statehood were U.S. military personnel and all those with U.S. citizenship who had lived in Hawai'i for at least one year; those who declared themselves Hawaiian citizens could not vote (Laenui, "Statehood"). Each one of the political actions that worked toward displacing Hawaiians from their land was and continues to be actively fought by Hawaiians (Silva 2-15).

  5. With the gradual decline of the plantations, Hawai'i's primary industry shifted to tourism, and large sections of the islands have been and are being developed to accommodate not only settlers, but tourists. Hawaiian lands are violated with little or no concern for their meaning and function for Hawaiians. As a notable example, the recently completed H3 highway, which took billions of dollars and many years to build, cut through and paved over sacred Hawaiian sites. Moreover, Waikîkî, one of the most famous and popular tourist destinations in the world, is a concrete jungle built on grounds that were once Hawaiian royal compounds or on land reclaimed by draining the multiple fish ponds and taro fields that Hawaiians cultivated. Because Hawai'i's current economy relies on tourist-related industries, aggressive development continues. Hawai'i's lands and waters are therefore often ravaged and polluted, Hawaiians and residents resort to low-paying service jobs that cater to tourists, and facsimiles of Hawaiian culture are marketed as commodities to fulfill visitors' fantasies of an exotic, tropical paradise.

  6. Although imitations of Hawaiian culture have been sold ever since tourists first came to the islands, numerous laws have been written by foreigners in Hawai'i to prohibit and/or discourage Hawaiian religious and cultural practices (Kimura 192-98; Native Hawaiian Advisory Board Homepage). Many of these laws have been overturned through the efforts of Hawaiian activists and Hawaiian sovereignty groups, the latter of which began forming in the 1970s. Despite their successes, Hawaiians still struggle against American attempts to assimilate or marginalize them. For example, at the time when Gaye Chan and I began our work on Historic Waikîkî, Hawaiians denounced and protested House Bill 2340, the so-called "Native Hawaiian Autonomy Bill," which was to create a monolithic state entity to administer Hawaiian claims to Hawaiian lands. If passed, the bill would have substantially reduced Hawaiian land trust entitlements, rights, and benefits. On 30 January 1998, Hawaiians gathered at the state capitol to demonstrate, embodying their solidarity in drumming, chanting, and hula -- cultural forms that previously had been outlawed. This protest succeeded in killing the bill.

  7. Because Hawai'i remains of strategic and economic importance to the United States, and because foreign settlers in Hawai'i are financially and personally invested in Hawai'i, the historical and current suppression of Hawaiian sovereignty is a reality that many people do not know about, and that many Hawai'i residents will not engage deeply. American culture insists that Americans may travel and settle where they please, that all Americans are free to pursue their individual interests, and that capitalism affords the greatest opportunities to satisfy personal needs. This recipe for freedom has in practice insured that those Americans with privilege and power can exploit other people and resources for private gain.

  8. The French ethnographer Michel Leiris understood that this dynamic is not only an American phenomenon, but a feature of capitalism wherever it occurs. In 1950, in a talk before fellow ethnographers, and subsequently in an article published for a wider audience, Leiris analyzed his own academic discipline in the context of global capitalism and colonialism (Leiris 112-31). He argued that although capitalism promises individual fulfillment, it oppresses not only the colonized, but indeed, the colonizer. Although members of capitalist, colonialist nations enjoy freedoms at the expense of those their nations' oppress, their freedoms are marked by alienation. Speaking and writing to a French audience well versed in a Marxist critique of capitalism, Leiris did not detail the effects of such alienation. In his recent study of the self in the digital age, psychologist, systems analyst, and philosopher Raymond Barglow, does:
    Like members of a colonized population, our lives are divided; we operate within various impersonal systems, but also inhabit a more personal, immediately experienced and taken-for-granted world that interacts with and is to some extent shaped by those systems. The rationalization of human affairs that technology affords results in a coordination and integration of social interactions that previously were informally organized or did not exist at all. But in the process it dismantles and reorganizes lifeworld structures, built up gradually over many generations, that served to anchor individual identities. The consequent malaise, the feeling that somehow human beings have lost their bearings and no longer know who they are, motivates a search for the self that shapes our popular culture. (Barglow 146)
    Barglow focuses on how the intersection of technology and bureaucratization -- a predominant characteristic of contemporary global capitalism -- undermines an experience of individual empowerment: that "the norms that many of us internalize as guides for our own behavior interlock with criteria of selection and performance that we ourselves have not chosen" (145). Although I in no way wish to claim that colonizer and colonized anywhere and especially in Hawai'i experience commensurate alienation -- crimes committed against Hawaiians do not compare to Americans' malaise -- in my discussion of Historic Waikîkî, I do want to examine the alienating effects of capitalism in Hawai'i that impact Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians differently, but negatively in both cases.

  9. Barglow does not argue that technology is solely pernicious, nor does he claim that an experience of human identity anchored to the self is wholly appropriate in today's postmodern world. Indeed, his book concludes with a rumination on the possibility of integrating the best effects of computerization (forms of connection and information sharing) and individualism (a sense of integration and direction) to shape human community that could thrive on difference and a lack of unity (206-7). He is not naively utopian, for he acknowledges that individuals tend to adhere to what they already experience, even if it does not deliver a promise to fulfill (207).

  10. Barglow is wise to remind his readers that technology has largely been used as a vehicle for the powerful to control resources and the less privileged. Although internet users are increasing very rapidly, a great many underprivileged members of society do not have access to cyberspace, let alone to computers. Many of the most sophisticated users of the internet are those who shape and manage cyberspace for personal and financial gain. Indeed, the internet is often described in topographical terms as a "new frontier" to be explored and organized productively. The metaphor extends to the practice of carving up cyberspace into distinct websites that are "owned" and "developed" by those who have laid claim to a kind of territory. This territorialization drives major battles among competing capitalist interests, just as many former and current colonies have been and are fought over by corporations. The will to dominate and control cyberspace has raised many concerns for those who are critical of how physical space has been developed -- frequently at the expense of indigenous peoples.

  11. However, despite the corporatization of the internet along a sort of real estate development model, I believe that cyberspace can be one of the most empowering means of communication possible: those who use the internet can acquire a great deal of data and participate in many varied forums. For those like myself who value the exchange of information and ideas, digital media has vastly multiplied our opportunities for learning and acting. Like Barglow, however, I am not naively utopian about the ways in which cyberspace connects and motivates people. I would argue that the forms of communication that the internet makes possible are both potentially alienating and freeing, and that if both possibilities are acknowledged and addressed in conjunction with one another, exchanges in cyberspace could work toward altering consciousness about and perhaps effecting change in contested places like Hawai'i. Such exchanges, however, cannot substitute for real-time connection among people, for communication and interactivity in cyberspace are disembodied and therefore often devoid of accountability in the physical world.

  12. David Spurr has observed that "the mosaic form of the newspaper, like the rapid succession of images in television news, helps to maintain . . . aesthetic distance" (44) from what actually occurs around us. The internet can reproduce this dynamic, but arguably, its limited interactivity allows for a conscious engagement with and perhaps creative reshaping of what is represented. I qualify this possibility because internet users are less apt to shape their own meanings within already constructed digital environments than they are inclined to consume experiences produced for them. In part, this problem stems from the current state of readily available and affordable technology. It also arises, however, from conscious or unconscious attempts to replicate what we already know rather than to envision what we would like to see. However, since hardware and software can forge connections by combining media, and among different voices and visions from website to website through hotlinks, the internet's layered, mosaic form can work toward closing gaps rather than widening them.

  13. Capitalist consumption -- while often life sustaining and psychologically gratifying -- can figure as one of the contemporary world's most oppressive operations (Bocock 40-9). Many have analyzed this dynamic by building on Marx's argument that workers are not only dispirited by capitalist labor, but ultimately unfulfilled by the actual goods and services they and others manufacture. Capitalist labor involves rote, atomized piece-work that separates laborers from one another, from those who supervise their activities, and their final product. The financial rewards for this labor enable consumption, which beyond subsistence, can afford convenience and pleasure. However, for critics like the French activist, writer, and filmmaker Guy Debord, consumption cannot sustain satisfaction, for capitalism supports itself by endlessly perpetuating desire for commodities. Debord further maintains that the commodification of leisure characteristic of contemporary capitalism signals the demise of human sovereignty, for when we no longer devise our own relaxation and enjoyment, we sacrifice our creative energies. Like Debord, I believe that when consumption seduces our creativity and pacifies our critical faculties, we are destined to buy false happiness (Debord 17-20).

  14. In Historic Waikîkî, Gaye Chan and I create and disseminate critical visual and textual representations of consuming pleasures in Waikîkî. Like other tourist sites, Waikîkî simulates a variety of experiences and offers up a range of objects that appear to be what is natural and real. However, unlike Disney World or Las Vegas, Waikîkî trades in the myth of nature and the ethnic "other's" supposed access to it. The pristine beach is fabricated from imported sand; Polynesian revues are marketed as glimpses into the actual "primitive" past; and vendors sell "real" Hawaiian shell leis made in the Philippines. In order to value these simulations one must either fail to understand, ignore, or revel in the fact that they are fabricated.

  15. Rather than lambaste Waikîkî consumer culture as one of the most egregious examples of colonialism and capitalism gone amok, we are creating a subtle intervention within Waikîkî's circuits of exchange. We understand that authentic needs are addressed by the consumption of fabricated experiences and goods, and perceive these needs as arising from the effects of capitalist alienation. Frustrated, bored, and/or drained by work, tourists buy Waikîkî vacation packages to experience pleasure in an environment that they find natural and exotic. Gaye Chan and I believe this packaged pleasure is structured by contradictory desires to have encounters and objects that are both familiar and different, which validate desires to be both familiar and different. No longer workers, tourists remain themselves, but as vacationers who can let loose in an "America" which is a tropical paradise. Our project is geared toward informing tourists about and motivating them to engage the destructive and constructive realities that shape historical and current experiences of difference and similarity in Hawai'i. We intend for them to understand that as vacationers in Waikîkî they create alienating work for others and contribute to the violation of a place that is not really paradise and a people who often do not identify as Americans.

  16. Because consumption structures tourists' experiences of Waikîkî so thoroughly, we have chosen to disseminate information about Hawai'i and Waikîkî through this operation. We are producing our tourist audience by drawing on the seduction of shopping, for we are creating a series of souvenirs that consist of packaged concrete and information. Considering the past popularity of the "pet rock" product in the U.S., and the selling of pieces of the demolished Berlin Wall, we reasoned that tourists will purchase bits of the authentic Waikîkî -- concrete -- if they are packaged attractively and represented meaningfully. Deploying the appeal of nostalgia, our packaging contains luscious black and white photographs of dated, generic urban Hawai'i haunts, the promise of information about Waikîkî's past inside, and the following external text:
    Chip away at the heap of mass-produced, superficial experiences of tourism in Hawai'i, and cement the memories of your vacation with an actual piece of Waikîkî's concrete jungle. Each edition of our series Historic Waikîkî, tells a different true story about real sites and real people of Hawai'i. Instead of trading in the myth of Hawai'i as the tourist's tropical paradise, our souvenirs offer you historical information not widely disseminated about how Waikîkî was transformed from part of a sovereign nation into today's urban resort.
    By defining the concrete as a material metaphor, we encourage our audience to consider our product's physical and symbolic relationships to Waikîkî and to tourists. When the tourist opens the packaging, three fields with little-known information unfold sequentially. First, a flap that contains a Hawai'i timeline, with information about how America has usurped Hawai'i's sovereignty; second, a flap that contains a Waikîkî timeline, with information about how colonialist capitalism has converted Hawaiian royal compounds, fishponds, and taro fields into an urban resort; and third, an interior page with a story keyed to a map that chart the above historical transformations through site-specific events in Waikîkî. We have written and illustrated four such factual narratives that move from the past to the present, and which work to connect the reader to former and current violations of Hawai'i and Hawaiians.

  17. Because nostalgia can distance a reader from current realities, our stories pull the past into the present, and specifically into the tourist's experience. For example, in the story "Draining Waikîkî," we describe Waikîkî's original system of streams that enabled aquaculture, which fed multitudes of Hawaiians. We discuss how these wetlands came to support rice and fish cultivation for Chinese and Japanese former plantation workers, and how the watery land came to be a nuisance for settlers and tourists because it sustained mosquitoes (insects introduced by foreigners), and because on one occasion, it accidentally drained silt into ocean frequented by sea bathers. We chronicle the U.S. Army's and private developers' land reclamation projects, and the 1921-28 construction of the Ala Wai Canal, the pet project of territorial governor Lucius Eugene Pinkham that drained Waikîkî and permitted large scale reclamation. We detail the 1996 findings of the Ala Wai Canal Watershed Management Coordination effort, which determined that vehicle emissions and runoff from termiticides and fertilizers have made the canal a major health risk; and that Waikîkî may flood because of silt build-up in the canal. We incorporate into the text of this history a provocative, large-scale question to our reader: Does Your Convenience Obliterate Culture?

  18. Our map, like our story, layers the site with history: it shows that today's concrete jungle, built on land drained by a canal paving the way for large-scale tourist development, was once a place where land and water literally nourished Hawaiians. We hope that this map and text, along with our other illustrated stories, will not assault our readers and therefore alienate them, but instead encourage them to reflect on the real rather than fantasized similarities and differences between them and Hawai'i's indigenous people. Like us, our readers cannot know the anger and sorrow Hawaiians' feel at the desecration of their land, but perhaps we who come to Hawai'i can consider the ways in which our lives and environments have been infinitely less but nevertheless most certainly encroached upon by capitalist development. If we acknowledge our complicity with the historical and current despoiling of land and subjugation of people, and if we are motivated to act upon these realities, perhaps we will no longer be merely seduced by Waikîkî and similar tourist destinations.

  19. This ambitious goal is surely not something that our souvenirs can effect, but perhaps they can contribute in a small but marked way to the efforts of others committed to a similar vision. The website component of Historic Waikîkî is the vehicle that enables us to connect our audience to those who can best educate tourists about the problems of colonialist capitalism in Hawai'i. Through hotlinks at our website, we direct viewers to websites created by Hawaiians that present analyses of Hawaiians' disenfranchisement in their own land, their ongoing commitment to one another and their land, and their projects dedicated to restoring their sovereignty (Hui Mâlama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei Homepage; Native Hawaiian Advisory Board Homepage; Nation of Hawai'i Homepage; Ka Lâhui Homepage). Although cyberspace does not connect Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians together physically, it does permit Hawaiians to represent themselves to others, who may be separated from them not only by geography, but by cultural, historical, and political realities. By spending time at websites created by Hawaiians, tourists who never spoke with Hawaiians about Hawai'i can learn about what today's Waikîkî obscures.

  20. Like our souvenirs, our website replicates the form but not the usual content of consumption. For those viewers who come to our website from our packaging, but especially for those viewers who happen upon it while surfing the web, we are making a virtual space shaped by the desire to consume. We are doing so not only to seduce our audience again, but to encourage our viewers to think critically about what we all hope for when we literally and figuratively buy something. Usually, we purchase goods or services that will fuel our desires; our website works toward challenging our desires. Our homepage is the interior of a tour bus, with tour destinations on bars designed like bus signage underneath (Historic Waikîkî Homepage). Each destination has a straightforward name that belies the complexity of the information that will unfold once the viewer selects the destination. Some selections are Hawaiian names, which for people who do not know Hawaiian will read as literal destinations in the context we have created. In fact, they are the names of the Hawaiian websites mentioned above. Other selections are generic tour package names such as Historic Hawai'i or Waikîkî Today. The former links to the timeline that charts Hawai'i's illegal incorporation into the United States, and the latter links to a tour of images that Gaye Chan produced of Waikîkî as actual concrete jungle rather than fantasized tropical paradise. The selection labeled Shopping takes viewers to information about our souvenirs. Each destination provides viewers with texts and images that demonstrate that consumption in Waikîkî and Hawai'i can be highly dispiriting and alienating. However, rather than leave our viewers with just a negative critique of colonialist capitalism, we direct them toward Hawaiian websites that share with them constructive, activist agendas. For example, the Nation of Hawai'i website encourages viewers to subscribe to a mailing list that will inform them of Hawaiian issues and projects via email. In addition, this website provides viewers with examples of actions they can take to further justice for Hawaiians, and the names of and contact information for those who are in a position to effect legislation.

  21. When Michel Leiris addressed his colleagues about the compromised position of the ethnographer who wished to aid the people his discipline objectified, and his nation (which supported his work) oppressed, he directed his audience toward what he felt to be a common enemy: capitalism. He argued:
    . . . one should recall that, as we too live under the domination of economic forces we cannot control, we are subject to our own oppression, and it is hard to see how the construction of a world freed from this oppression could take place unless all those who must submit to its consequences, whether they are colonized peoples or not, unite against the common enemy represented by a bourgeoisie too attached to its position as dominant class not to seek -- consciously or unconsciously --to maintain at all costs such a state of oppression. (Leiris 130-31)
    Haunani-Kay Trask's epigraph that begins this essay informs us forcefully that the privileges of tourists -- a dominant class -- are won in Hawai'i at the expense of Hawaiians. Her categorization of commercial movies as "slick," popular music as "saccharine," and daily American life as "maniacal," points to the truism most of us acknowledge in some form or another: the fact that capitalist pleasure and work are often not as fulfilling as they purport to be and we might imagine they are. By directing our audience to the critique of Waikîkî's and Hawai'i's historical and current realities that Trask and other Hawaiians have produced, we hope to encourage tourists to rethink their relationship to consuming Hawai'i and consumption in general. Using cyberspace toward this end is critical, for it need not be another vehicle for capitalist exchange, but can operate as a tool for the production and dissemination of knowledge that may change consciousness, and that may motivate people to work towards real world change.

    Note on Hawaiian language spelling: Hawaiian makes use of two diacritical marks. The 'okina (glottal stop) is easy to insert in a Web document using an apostrophe (technically, the 'okina is an upside-down apostrophe). The kahakô (vowel elongation indicator) cannot be inserted in a Web document with any reliability. Its true form is a straight line directly above the vowel (a macron); Hawaiian language web sites use either a circumflex/carat or an umlaut to approximate this mark. This article uses the former, as it seems to be the most common substitution.


    Works Cited

    Barglow, Raymond. The Crisis of the Self in the Age of Information: Computers, Dolphins, and Dreams. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

    Bocock, Robert. Consumption. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

    Debord, Guy. "Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency's Conditions of Organization and Action." Situationist International Anthology. Trans. and ed. Ken Knabb. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981. 17-25.

    Historic Waikîkî. Ed. Gaye Chan and Andrea Feeser. June 2001. U of Hawaii at Manoa. http://www.downwindproductions.com

    Hui Mâlama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei. Ed. Richard W. Pell. July 1996. Hui Malama I Na Kupuna 'O Hawai'i Nei. http://www.pixi.com/~huimalam/

    Ka Lâlui. http://kalahui.com/

    Kame'eleihiwa, Lilikalâ. Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea Lâ E Pono Ai? Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1992.

    Kimura, Larry. "Native Hawaiian Culture." Native Hawaiians Study Commission Report. U.S. Department of the Interior. Vol. 1. 1983: 173-203; 214-223.

    Laenui, Poka. "Statehood: A Second Glance." Nation of Hawai'i. http://hawaii-nation.org/statehood2.html.

    Leiris, Michel. "The Ethnographer Faced with Colonialism." Brisées: Broken Branches. Trans. Lydia Davis. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989. 112-131.

    Nation of Hawai'i. http://hawaii-nation.org/nation.

    Native Hawaiian Advisory Board. http://www.pixi.com/~nhac/.

    Schmitt, R.C. Demographic Statistics of Hawai'i: 1778-1965. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1968.

    Silva, Noenoe K. "Kû'ê! Hawaiian Women's Resistance to the Annexation." Social Process in Hawai'i. Women in Hawai'i: Sites, Identities, Voices 38 (1997): 2-15.

    Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

    Stannard, David. Before the Horror: The Population of Hawai'i on the Eve of Western Contact. Honolulu: Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawai'i, 1989.

    Trask, Haunani-Kay. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawai'i. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1993.


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