About the event
The members of The Propeller Group discuss their work with Marilyn and Larry Fields Curator Naomi Beckwith. The conversation takes place in their exhibition on the second floor.
Naomi Beckwith: Afternoon gentlemen and congratulations on your show here, your official opening. I thought I’d start with some basic questions because I don’t think everyone in the audience knows you all and knows your practice. I’m hoping if all three of you could just give a little bit of your education background and tell us what you were doing before you found each together as The Propeller Group?
Tuan Nguyen: My name is Tuan Andrew Nguyen. I actually met Matt during our days at CalArts, during our graduate studies. And Matt and I started working together as students. We were collaborating with each other on different projects and then we ended up collaborating with other artists and other collectives during our time there at CalArts and after I graduated CalArts I moved to Vietnam to pursue my own art practice there and then I met Phunam and we started shooting videos together on a commercial kind of side. We were doing television work and film work but then we also started collaborating on video projects and more conceptual work as well, so that’s my kind engagement with the collective.
Phunam: Sorry what was your question again?
NB: Who are you and what are you doing?
Phunam: My name is Phunam and I live in Vietnam. My education background is . . .
NB: Or work background.
Phunam: Or work background?
NB: Before you were in The Propeller Group.
Phunam: I was an antiques restorer for my father and now I’m in this collective. I hope I understood.
I’m sorry. I’m not good at this.
NB: You’re doing all right, though Tuan just intimated that you actually were also doing a little film and video work, too, no? Phunam: Yes thank you Tuan.
Matt Lucero: Yes, my name is Matt Lucero and, as Tuan mentioned, we met at CalArts. I guess just to give some background – background, in my personal studies and interests, growing up in Southern California and having my art education there I was really interested in what art practices were like at that time and the influences that I was sort of . . . I was really influenced by Cacophony Society and Artmark, Guerrilla Girls and Survival Research Laboratories in San Francisco, so these are all kinda like sort of . . . I wouldn’t call them collectives, but they’re more like social-engaging structures that are evolving or something like that. So they’re sort of the . . . what I would consider models for where our foundation maybe is coming from, but also thinking of the Directors Bureau and creative frameworks or businesses because they were a business, like a company of . . . a collective of individuals, filmmakers that were making music videos and making film. They were making . . .
NB: And this is in LA yes?
ML: And this is in LA, too, so Spike Jonze was part of that Directors Bureau and a lot of other directors, Chris Cunningham. And so it was this time where there was a lot of stuff happening in the public space and then there were these artists and creatives that were creating their own entities to do the work that they were doing. So that’s – I would say like those two things are really interesting foundations for The Propeller Group and how they . . . we took those ideas and just expanded on them in a crazy way.
NB: I’m interested in what you say that you weren’t just interested in making work, you were interested in the structures by which artwork is made and how people sort of form into these organizations that allow creative practice to thrive, but I’m also fascinated, as I think many people are, by the fact that you all are practicing visual artists, what we kind of understand in sort of academic ways, fine artists, but you’ve also incorporated as a media group in Ho Chi Minh City. Tell us a little about that process and why, why that was necessarily important for any of you.
TN: Let’s see. When I first started working with Phunam in 2006, we started to make a documentary film about the first generation of graffiti artists in Vietnam. Graffiti is a long-running thread in our work and we soon realized that it was almost impossible to shoot in public, to film in public without a license. So it was a very kind of pragmatic kind of resolution to kinda license ourselves and to be able to carry equipment out in public to gather images and stories. While we were incorporating, we realized that there were different licenses that we could register under and, at this time in the economic development of Vietnam, advertising was becoming really big, so we soon realized that advertising companies had much more access to the public space than other companies did so we registered as an advertising company. We knew nothing about advertising. We knew we hated advertising and that was the irony of that move for us and we’ve kind of explored that kind of theme since then.
NB: The biggest irony of course of hating advertising is that the show starts with an advert. Can someone tell me a little bit about the history of this work, which is called Television Commercial for Communism?
ML: So Television Commercial for Communism . . . you know as Tuan was mentioning we also operated as a production company/advertising agency and we’ve worked with real agencies to produce commercial projects, commercial work, music videos, also with other collectives and artists to make film work for other artists and with other artists, so we had some connections in that world, in the world of advertising and media production. So we had some friends at TBWA\Vietnam, they have a brand, they global branches everywhere, and TBWA is a major advertising agency. The early sort of incarnation of TBWA, Chiat\Day, is responsible for the 1984 Apple commercial, like the really famous award-winning commercial, so they’re really a powerhouse in terms of advertising production and so we were fortunate enough to have some connections in the agency in Vietnam and we pitched the idea to the agency if they would be up for . . . as if we were clients representing the last five remaining Communist countries in the world and we wanted to rebrand the image of Communism. And we proposed at TBWA, is this something that they could help us do as a serious project? And it was a complicated project because TBWA branches can’t just take on these sorts of political projects without some prior approvals from . . . I think the main offices in London . . . in New York? I thought it was London.
Well it had to get prior approval from the head office for this project and we thought it just wasn’t gonna happen because it was sort of controversial and could be read a certain way maybe, and we got the approval to do it and we were fortunate to be able to do that and work with this agency. And so we recorded a series of discussions that they had in developing this idea and it was a really diverse groups of young creatives representing the region but also there was some American individuals present, and it was a really diverse group, which is kind of amazing to see operating in a creative way in Vietnam, I mean, really, at that time, and now, and allowed to do these sorts of projects so . . . and it’s a complicated . . .
Right so they come up with this idea of a commercial and the first idea was that there was a young girl traversing the world and she was having these exchanges with different people and, in these exchanges, a smile would be given to her and she would collect these smiles and it was a sort of currency and, at the end of the day, she met with a group of people in a town hall and distributed these smiles and it became the new flag for Communism. So it was this really utopic, white landscape where multicultural representation of what the world would be like under Communism . . . and really the discussions were interesting because they were questioning their own sort of interpretation of what Communism meant for them. And each individual coming from different places had different interpretations: so a Malaysian that had a specific understanding and experience of Communism would react a certain way and have a certain definition; somebody from the US would have a certain definition and then . . . so it was a very complicated starting point and they ended up pointing to the Wikipedia definition of Communism, so that was the sort of groundwork for what defines this ideology and they based the commercial and the manifesto on that idea. So in the catalogue there’s a brand bible that a branding agency that we worked with did for Communism and it shows the whole development from the logo treatments to the type setting and how the colors are supposed to be used and it’s really serious undertaking. It wasn’t meant to be facetious or ironic but there’s a lot of irony in it but it was a very serious study, self-study and also a study on how we think about ideologies and the complexities of ideologies and these two coexisting ideologies that we see in Vietnam.
NB: Yes I mean it think one of the main ironies of course is that you use the primary tools of Capitalism to pimp Communism or make a consumer object out of Communism, which is, well, somewhat hilarious, depending on what side of the coin you’re standing on. I wanted to talk about some other specific projects especially the ones revolving around the AK-47 vs. the M16. So this is a running motif through your work. These two guns appear over and over again, in films, in sculptural works. So can we start . . . well first can we start by talking about these beautiful gel blocks that we see in the room behind this wall and then talk a little bit about why these two guns are so significant for so many projects?
TN: So the jail blocks that you see behind these walls, they’re FBI ballistics gel blocks and what we did was we got an AK-47—it’s an assault rifle invented in Russia and it first saw battle in the Vietnam War—and we got an M16, which was the US military’s response to the AK-47 and we shot those two guns together and collided the bullets inside the gel block and the gel block captures that fusion, that collision when the two bullets hit each other. The project originated when we were doing our research. A lot of our work actually kind of tries to kind of unpack ideologies from the Cold War, these ideologies that have been in conflict for so long and still even to these days, this day, has an affect on our lives internationally. And we were interested in how these two guns, these two assault rifles, have become icons of and in themselves. In our research we found very beautiful objects in the American Civil War Museum and it was two bullets that fused on the battlefield and it’s a very special object because statisticians say that it’s almost impossible, even with that kind of warfare that was happening back during the Civil War days, where two sides would just line up and shoot lead at each other, it’s almost impossible, it’s like a one in a billion chance that two bullets would hit each other in midair and fuse. So we got really kind of connected to that, that potentiality and the possibility of that . . . what that meant. So what we initially wanted to do was apply that kind of reenactment of history onto the Cold War era and these two assault rifles that have come out of the Cold War and . . . but that proved to be almost impossible as well because technologies have advanced since the Civil War days and the velocity of the bullets traveling these days is . . . it doesn’t allow bullets or any kind of metal to fuse, they just hit and they collide. So while we were working with our engineers—our ballistics laboratory engineers and stuff—we found this material in the corner and it’s a material that replicates the density of human tissue. So this is what FBI ballistics experts use to see how much damage a bullet does to you when it goes through your body. So we used that to capture the collision and it . . . you know as you see the work it becomes a freeze-frame of this moment and that’s something that we’re also very much interested in as filmmakers to create these freeze-frame kinda moments.
NB: I think that’s beautiful to think about these things in relationship to both photography and film so, on the one hand, they do look like freeze frames, which are photos, and photography was being developed at about the time of the Civil War so there’s a kind of parallel media history that goes along with this conflict history as well. And then you’ve got this funny film. I want to get into the films a little bit, too. Okay, funny may not be the kindest word, but a film called AK-47 vs. the M16. So all of a sudden we have a move from using the guns rather literally in the gel-block situation into this kind of metaphor. Would someone like to talk about the film? I have a feeling Phunam does not wanna do that.
Phunam: The film is actually . . . the main actor is the AK-47 and the other main actor is the M16 and throughout the film you would definitely see both actors appearing in almost every shot and we’ve combined documentary TV shows and Hollywood films, all the action scenes and drama scenes and made a narrative out of it.
ML: So there’s an Internet Movie Firearms Database that we sometimes pointed to in some of this research and you can search for any weapon and it’ll give you a list of films and videogames where that weapon has been used and represented and what years and it’s a pretty incredible archive that’s maintained and it’s kinda scary, too, but not surprising and . . . but also it was interesting, all of these instances where the AK-47 and the M16 appear, it was interesting to . . . when we were researching, how much of that actually came from our own memories, watching these films as a kid, and we’d say, “Oh remember this, oh, remember that,” and it’s all archived—we store that subconsciously. So a lot of this is about advertising and how we’re ingesting media and the psychological effects of media and imagery and image making. So when you mentioned the gel blocks as this . . . pointing toward the beginnings of photography and that . . . and also I wanna point out that there’s some really beautiful aesthetics around these objects; they’re these really beautiful objects, but they’re also very violent at the same time and they exist in this space where both things are sort of happening and you know . . . there’s a film called Act of Killing—Joshua Oppenheimer’s film—and it’s a really disturbing film and there were some discussions that we had with a friend of ours, David Tay, about the anesthetization of violence and he said something really interesting that you know a lot of people talk about aestheticizing violence but people don’t really talk about the violence of aesthetics. And I thought that was fascinating because I started thinking about possibly how violent or psychologically damaging these beautiful images could be as well as these horrific images. And so we’re exploring these sorts of ideas in the gel blocks and also in this film as an extreme example of these horrific moments because there’s a lot of gore and blood and violence, but it’s all simulated so you really get the sense that you’re watching this simulation, this Hollywood representation and simulation of violence, which is kinda complex, too, and layered, but it’s equally disturbing even to know that it’s represented and aestheticized and we ingest it all the time.
NB: Well I was gonna say it may be simulated but it’s still quite painful to watch. I mean I think it’s not lost on anyone that the metaphor or the words that we use for taking images and the words that we use for, well, killing things are the same ones: we shoot things, right? So there’s something about, like, an image making as sending a trajectory towards someone and it’s not necessarily a friendly gesture all the time. There’s plenty of sort of moments and cultures that don’t like photography, that don’t like being captured in that way and I think it’s important to think about those differences, these, especially as we talk about sort of working in Saigon and/or versus let’s say working in a place called LA or the US that there are subtleties in sort of the cultural differences of making images, which brings me to another question before I wanna talk about another film work, which is why are y’all in Ho Chi Minh City?
TN: Where’s Ho Chi Minh City? I’m just joking.
NB: It’s right next to a little town called Saigon.
TN: No we’ve been going back-and-forth on whether to call this specific geographic location Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon. Historically the location has been called Saigon for hundreds if not thousands of years and after the consolidation of governments after the war, the American War in Vietnam ended in ’75, the northern government who came in decided to change the name of the city from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City and a lot of our conversation has been about whether calling it Saigon could be an act of protest to that kind of dominant narrative that has been applied to that very specific region and those very specific people. I myself call it Saigon – whoo-whoo. No one’s with me? No one’s with me here?
But I . . . why are we? Oh, why are we in Saigon? I think you know each one of us has very different stories on how we kind of came back to Saigon, even Matt, as a return to the place. Me personally I was . . . I wanted to spend time with my grandmother who was a writer and a poet there and I never got a chance to spend time with her due to circumstances in history and leaving the country. So, for me, it was very personal in that way. I was born there. My family escaped and then I returned there and haven’t been able to escape again.
Phunam: I was born in Saigon, too, and my family left as refugees when I was six months old but my dad made sure that when the doors opened again we came back to Vietnam again and my name, Phunam, actually means to sort of carry Vietnam and I felt that was my role to come back and come back and do something for Vietnam.
ML: Yeah I was born in California but I sometimes joke that in a past life I was Vietnamese so I feel like . . . I sometimes say when I came back to Vietnam . . . and it’s kinda funny because I was never there but I feel like I have been. But . . . and maybe it’s in a way I’m embodying my father’s history because my father, who is here, served in the military and was in Vietnam in 1967–68, in Saigon, so yeah there’s a personal connection that I have through my father to that place specifically.
NB: I think that’s a really important generational point to make, too, because my father, who is standing next to your father, was also in the battle in Vietnam and so what we all have are these kind of imaginations about what Vietnam was and I think . . . part of the question I was asking you, too is, well, what does it offer your work now to be in that place, the place that for many of us who were raised in the states only exist as the shadow of the war that the Americans lost and that’s the only way we can sort of frame it in our imagination?
ML: But and I have to say that growing up I had a specific understanding of Vietnam through the media and I think that Vietnam is probably the most mediatized country in the history of media and it’s probably because journalism was such an important part of the war at that time and we were seeing the moving image in the United States. It was an important part of our culture and how we received information, so it was sort of a transformative moment in terms of how we see things at that time so . . . and what’s interesting is that if you Google search for Vietnam, if you Google search Vietnam now, the images that come up are from then. That’s 40 plus years ago and Google Archive changed . . .
NB: The most popular Google search that comes up if you start typing in Vietnam is “war” . . .
ML: I mean this is incredible because you know the Google Archive shifts by the second. It’s constantly sort of being molded and shifting but there’s still this propagation of this imagery that exists even through Google and I’m just curious about why . . . the complexities of that archive, but also why are there no other sorts of representations present. So as a second generation from our parents, right, and there is the sort of . . . we grew up during the time when it was the end of the Cold War and experiencing the dissipation but it was still present, this tension that’s still present and even present today. I think that a lot of our work is about that because we’re still experiencing that and have experienced that but also we have this direct connection because of our parents and our parents’ histories and we’re affected directly because we’re a part of that history.
NB: That kind of an unfortunate representational archive that still exists is what makes things like The AK-47 vs. the M16 even possible as a film, but I’m also interested in these other images of Vietnam that you guys are producing as well and most significantly I think in this exhibition is a beautiful film called The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, which is about a kind of contemporary look at Vietnam but through its funerary practices. Can you all walk us a bit through that film?
TN: For those who haven’t seen the film in the back room, it’s called The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music. The title of the film comes from a Vietnamese proverb that kind of explains the kind of approach to celebrating one’s life through celebrating their death and a lot of the ceremonies and the rituals that are brought into these celebrations are kinda fantastic. They’re beautiful acts of death-defying actions. There’s a lot of music, a lotta celebrations. Some of these celebrations could last from two days up until nine days, I heard from someone, and they’re very public. And because the way that the houses are kinda situated in Vietnam, there’s a very thin kind of barrier between public and private. People kind of live in public. It’s a very street-oriented culture and so when these funerals happen, they start inside the home but the home opens up out into the public and the doors are open and people can come and celebrate with the family. Complete strangers will come and celebrate with the family. You drink. You eat. There’s bands. There’s a procession that happens. And it’s . . . one of the reasons why we got interested in this phenomena because the transgendered and the transvestite communities take this opportunity to come and perform in public so it becomes an area of protest and resistance or something like that. It’s very amazing. And they come and they dance and they perform and because it’s such an ingrained kind of ritual in Vietnamese society; the government doesn’t do anything about it, which makes it into this very kind of complex and beautiful space. And where was I? So that’s where we kind of got inspired to make this film. So the film follows several funeral processions in the southern part of Vietnam and we traverse a lotta different landscapes there and it very much . . . is very much similar to the landscapes in New Orleans and some of the rituals and the music and the processions kind of overlap with some of the second-line kinda traditions in New Orleans and that’s why I think when the film was released in Prospect3 in the New Orleans Biennial, people . . . it grabbed people’s attention because they didn’t know where they were in the film, in this filmic space.
NB: That’s a beautiful phrase because not only do you not know where you were but time moves in a weird way throughout the film and I’m wondering if I can ask a technical question, which is: How do you work with time and speed and the kind of tone in the films, because the slowing down, the speeding up, this kind of two tracks of time working simultaneously, in frames, is a motif through several films and can you speak to that a little bit, just as filmmakers?
ML: So there’s a technique that we use when we make music videos sometimes and you shoot overcrank, so you film at a higher frame rate so when you bring it in to edit, the footage sort of slows down and the lips are still in-sync so it’s this trick that filmmakers sometimes use—it’s an aesthetic sort of trick—and we’ve applied that to our film work, specifically The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music, so we like to consider it sort of music-film and there’s a moment where it’s . . . you’re lost in the . . . there’s music—a full song that’s in the middle of the film—and it sort of becomes a music video. And we sort of thought of this as a music video. I think our approach was looking at it through that, through the lens of commercial producers producing a music video for the band or the person who was leading this procession as an homage to the work that they do, as homage to the workers that are performing, also as an homage to the people that had passed away, and maybe what better way to have an homage to somebody is to make a music video to them and . . . go for it.
TN: Yeah I think it was really important to us because a lot of people when they see the film, it’s very for a film like this to fall into the category of being exoticizing because it’s so fantastical and some of the imagery is so rich and the characters are so unique and special, but it was very helpful I think, you know in our commercial work, how we approach different subjects. In the commercial world we call them clients and sometimes they’re pop singers and sometimes they’re like brands and I think we brought that into this work . . . and the approach of making a music video of these people celebrating these people’s labor and their presence and their actions and their performances, we approached them as if they were pop stars. They were kind of heroic figures in this landscape, marching through the landscape, and I think that’s . . . a lotta . . . yeah I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why I think people enjoy the film so much and that it doesn’t fall into that kind of very problematic kind of ways of looking that exoticize the subject, I think.
NB: I have a follow-up question to that film and I actually wanna open it up to the audience but I have one more question for you, myself, and that is we’re also celebrating your death with this project as well, so I would love for you all to explain that a little bit because the book, in particular, opens up with an obituary to The Propeller Group. They’re not dead y’all. They’re sitting right here.
This is time moving in two different levels right now. Can we talk a little bit about The Propellers now?
TN: First of all RIP, Muhammad Ali, major, major character in our histories. We are not dead ourselves up here. We will be eventually, so as will all of you, so we think just culturally, in Vietnam, death is a part of everyday life. There’s always celebrations of death, not only in regards to the funerals that are happening in public space and you pass ‘em on your way to work, but it’s ingrained in how people live. And death has become . . . has been such a big part of Vietnamese history because of the multiple wars over multiple, multiple thousands of years. I think you know death has been a recurring theme in a lot of our work; AK-47/M16 piece kind of has . . . touches upon a very kind of existential idea about existence and death. The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music is a very kind of direct kind of exploration of the ceremonies in which we make to help prepare ourselves for death, but there was a question about our death, right?
NB: Why is there an obituary?
TN: Why is there an obituary? Oh yeah, who wrote that obituary? Was it you, Phunam? No. One of the opening pieces in the book is an obituary to The Propeller Group and it talks about the mythology of dying and ways of . . . I think the obituary was a way of . . . a different approach to thinking about death and existence and the act of being a collective and . . . as compared to being an individual artist with your own individual practice. Matt, did you . . . ?
ML: I . . . oh well . . .
TN: That’s a tough question.
ML: Maybe we all have sort of leanings toward Buddhist philosophy as a . . . I think we can all say that and agree with that but . . . I don’t know. Maybe . . . how did that . . . ?
TN: I think we also kinda take this idea of reincarnation as a metaphor or as a strategy and we apply it to image making.
Phunam: I wanna die to be reborn. That’s Mahatma Gandhi also said.
NB: But the short of it is you also take it very seriously. It’s a metaphor. It’s celebration. But you actually consulted who gave you a new birthdate and so you sort of . . . I saw a small kind of funerary ceremony for you and a literal reincarnation ceremony so The Propeller Group in order for better chi has been reborn just in time for this exhibition. Are there any questions from the audience?
Audience: Do you guys feel like you have your own individual marks on each of the works or do you really work together on it?
NB: The question for those of you who may not heard it was a question about the collective practice. Do they each have individual marks on the works or do they sort of think as an ensemble?
ML: Yeah, I think we definitely approach things subjectively. It’s impossible not to and have your own sort of ideas and thoughts about specific subject matter that we’re dealing with. So we each bring something very unique when we’re discussing the idea, the foundation of a project. It might come from a specific place, like Tuan was mentioning the Civil War fusion of bullets and then it sort of gets impacted with research, like we came across a Myth Busters episode where they tried to replicate the Civil War bullet and then we get sort of obsessed with myth busting the Myth Busters and working with ballistics lab to do that. And so you know I think it’s the process of collaboration isn’t always so clear and it isn’t always so clear where things . . . sometimes it is, though, but as things develop, it gets more layered and more layered and more complex and I think that’s the beauty of working with other people is that if you allow yourself to be open, unexpected things can happen and it takes the project potentially to another place that either one of us if we would work on that particular project might not take it to that place.
Audience: I’m thinking about the way we that we could get [inaudible] existing images and then how you sort of be as it is on top of that maybe as this critique of representation or myth busting so I guess my question to you guys is: Isn’t everything an image?
NB: I think you all heard that.
TN: Leave it to Landa for hard questions.
I think the . . .
TN: I think we start there. I think we start there. I think we originated in that space, believing that everything is an image and I think . . . and maybe this goes back to your question about the obituary and about death. We’re invested in exploring the possibility that . . . the opposite of that question; that maybe images . . . that the narrative doesn’t have an image sometimes. Does that make sense? That everything isn’t an image but possibly everything is a narrative. It has to have a beginning and possibly an end and maybe that’s where we’re headed, I think.
Does that make sense?
ML: There’s also an interesting . . . you know Tuan mentioned looking and I think looking as a lens and how our mind interprets what we’re seeing as a form of image making I think is interesting because as filmmakers and commercial producers, we’re highly aware of shifting lenses for different clients, as Tuan was saying, like we might shoot something specifically for Coca-Cola that we wouldn’t normally do for SUPERFLEX or Dinky Layer or somebody else that we’re working with so we sort of can switch our lenses depending on our subject matter, the end goal, who we’re working with, what we’re trying to achieve, and I think that ability to change lenses gives us different perspectives and allows possibly the viewer to see things differently, which is a sort of reaction that we’re getting from the film is this different way of looking at a subject matter, a representation of that subject matter that is also a critique of ethnographic filmmaking and documentary filmmaking and just photography and the colonial act of making an image.
TN: And I think sometimes when images don’t have narrative behind them then they could be really problematic or they could be used in problematic ways, so I think the narrative is something very important to us.
NB: Speaking of narrative when you talk about images we’re also talking about information and how it relays something, whether it be factual or fictional to its viewer or to its audience but we’ve talked as a group a lot about mythology and so I’m fascinated by this interest in mythology but this interest in the way images carry information or may have to be counteracted in some way and, as a follow-up question, when you talk about this move between fiction and mythology versus fact or history or something of its representation.
ML: Yeah, that gets a little more complicated when you’re dealing with objects, especially historic antiquities. Right. And so . . . and then there’s carbon dating there’s all these processes that one goes about to figure out what value that has. The . . . so that’s an interesting thing to think about, too. I don’t know if you wanted to add anything about antiquity.
TN: I think we’re very kind of obsessed with this idea of mythology and creating stories, re-creating stories around objects and around different histories other than the dominant narrative, and I think a lot of . . . we try to do that in a lot of our work, we try, we attempt to, like the film AK-47 vs. M-16 is a way to kind of unpack all the images that we’ve seen growing up since the Vietnam War, since the AK-47 and the M16 first saw each other in battle, and then to repack it into a different narrative that exists in our head, you know? And when you watch the film it’s gonna be very traumatizing for you all, so don’t watch the film, don’t. Don’t watch it.
ML: So in repacking that imagery, like Tuan was saying, in reediting, we become complicit in the same ways that the industry is creating these images, these really traumatic and damaging, violent imagery. So I think that’s interesting, too, is that . . . I think in the work that we’re doing, we’re not separating ourselves from the act of making, we put ourselves in the act of making, which makes us complicit but also gives us an opportunity to sort of push and pull things, you know, both sides of things, so I think it’s difficult at times, like editing this, I feel like I’m contributing in a way and I don’t wanna be a part of that, but it also gives me a different perspective in allowing me to think about things differently and rethink about these existential ideas and the way that we’ve sort of ingested these images over time and the place that we live in now and the place that our children are gonna grow up in, in the future, so it’s really complex.
NB: We have time for one more question from the audience.
Audience: Yes, my question is specifically about the film that is . . . a conversation with FedEx, I was wondering how much of that comes from actual experience and also how you’re sort of navigating it [inaudible] and the possibilities of being overly didactic [inaudible].
NB: For those of you who couldn’t hear the question was about a work called Fade In, and Fade In is a video work by which a conversation between a producer working with the group, called Tung, is talking to a FedEx custom agent and the FedEx custom agent basically withheld the shipment of objects that had left Vietnam for a TV-production project but somehow was absconded on the way back into Vietnam. The question in particular was how much of this was real, how much of this was based on real activities, and how much is this . . . how much of this is trying to avoid being overly-didactic about, if I’m quoting correctly, overly didactic about, let’s say cultural—can I say cultural?—preservation, cultural value, and authenticity? Is that a fair . . . ? Yeah? Okay.
ML: So this film was reenactment from our conversations with customs agents in Vietnam.
NB: Based on a true conversation.
ML: So based on a true conversation and the conversation ended up with the customs agent suggesting to us what we should do for an exhibition, just a general overview, and so the shipment . . . the movement of the wood pieces that you see in that film, Fade In, ultimately went to an exhibition very much like what you see here and this was shown in Vietnam so that’s a . . .
TN: Originally the intent was to ship back objects and props that we had created in Vietnam for a television miniseries made in Vietnam about porcelain from a historical museum in Holland. So when we shipped it back to the historical museum in Holland, it became Dutch national treasure, even though they were really cheap props, like fake wooden guns and there were wooden lighter guns that you’d light your cigarette with and fake swords and fake, like, Dutch costumes from the 18th century. So when it was marked as “Dutch National Treasure: Historical Items” coming back into Vietnam it was given a different value, and this idea of value kind of plays . . . plays out throughout this conversation we had and, in the end, we were surprised. The only thing that we changed in the . . . of course we rewrote our experiences. It’s a reenactment. The person that we had a conversation with wasn’t the FedEx customs guy; it was a customs guy from National Security. It was a government guy and that’s the only that we kinda switched around, but we tried to write the conversation as close to our memory of that conversation as possible.
NB: What does it tell you in the end of this conversation?
TN: So what does it tell you in the end of this conversation? She didn’t have a mic, sorry.
NB: Everyone’s a curator.
TN: Well like I said, you know it’s a really interesting . . . and people surprise you and the way people value objects and put value on objects is interesting and that’s something that we try to call into question and even we get surprised sometimes. And I think that’s what . . . for us the humor of the film is in that moment where it kinda turns back on us and we’re . . .
NB: You get schooled a little bit. Thank you for schooling us on your work and on your practice. Congratulations again on a beautiful exhibition and for a wonderful work. We look forward to what’s next. Thank you all for coming and have a wonderful afternoon.
- The Propeller Group–
- Short A person with a cow skull for a head stands in a forest, wearing a white shirt streaked with red and with arms outstretched.