CONVERSATIONS Mousse 73
At the Edge Of: Tuan Andrew Nguyen
Rahel Aima in Conversation with Tuan Andrew Nguyen
Memory is stranger than fiction in the work of Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Nguyen initially became known for his work with The Propeller Group, an art collective masquerading as an ad agency, which he cofounded with Phunam Thuc Ha and (later) Matt Lucero at the end of 2005. Like his family, who fled Vietnam during the war, many of Nguyen’s films feature people who are unmoored from their own countries and spend their lives in either perpetual motion or interminable limbo. In what follows, he and Rahel Aima speak about world-building, rebranding communism, resisting colonial erasure through storytelling, and the magic of extinction scenarios.
RAHEL AIMA: The Propeller Group occupies an interesting position between art and advertising.
TUAN ANDREW NGUYEN: The Propeller Group was a project designed to study the contradictions and overlaps between capitalist advertising and communist propaganda in the context of Vietnam. The tense relationship between them was quite tangible all the way up to the late 2000s. Before the trade embargo was lifted in 1994, public art was primarily propaganda—the hand-painted kind inspired by Soviet Social Realism. Suddenly there was a massive influx of global advertising companies. The aesthetic was chaos, capitalist chaos. It was everything all of a sudden.
Filming in public was quite difficult—the government had a stranglehold on how images of the country were being produced. We discovered that they were giving much leeway to advertising companies, who could film in public, rent out spaces for exhibitions and events, buy airtime, et cetera, and so we decided to register The Propeller Group. We were thinking very pragmatically, but realized shortly afterward that there might be something to this symbolic cloak. And we started to perform as an “ad agency.”
RAHEL: How do you approach collaboration?
TUAN ANDREW: Collectivity and collaboration take many different forms. In the communist context, they take the form of sharing resources, in theory. In the capitalist context they exist as corporate hierarchy. When The Propeller Group was making Television Commercial for Communism (2011), these differences became quite interesting. It was really important for us to document the agency’s collaborative processes in creating the concept for this communism-rebranding campaign. These “tissue sessions” were a major part of the project—one that oftentimes gets overlooked.
Filmmaking also lends itself to mutual or collective storytelling. Working with people whose stories are relegated to the black holes of history, film offers this way of working together in terms of the process as well as ways of storytelling, but also inherently embodies that collective effort as a “document.” We Were Lost in Our Country (2019) was a collaboration with the Ngurrara people of the Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia. These collaborations are a way for me to set up circumstances and conditions for communities of people to be able to tell their story in a medium they often don’t have access to. I work with a lot of archival footage, and a lot of the frame-in-frame moments were homages to the archive, and other moments of their story. I came to the story fifteen years after [the Ngurrara Canvas was painted], and the community was in a very different space. I feel very attracted to these moments.
With The Specter of Ancestors Becoming (2019) I’m working with a community at a very critical time in their history, where all the first-generation Vietnamese mothers have passed away. There’s only one grandmother left—these notions of transmission and embodiment will transform into something else once that last mother has gone. Similarly, there’s now the second, third generation after the Ngurrara Canvas—which is both a gorgeous abstract painting and a subversive map of one of the most uninhabitable terrains on Earth—was made, who don’t even know that they were from the desert. Historical memory and personal familial transmission become important as a moment of resistance to systematic colonial erasures that happen due to the passing of time and the silences that overcome communities due to the traumas of colonial destruction.
RAHEL: What drew you to this particular subject in the first place?
TUAN ANDREW: Adrian Lahoud, who was curating the first Sharjah Architecture Triennial in 2019, approached me after having seen The Specter of Ancestors Becoming. He had been working on getting the Ngurrara Canvas II to Sharjah for the exhibition. I immediately became obsessed with the idea of the Ngurrara Canvas, which looks like a complex and gorgeous abstract painting but is actually a codified map, an object of memory, and one that situates itself in opposition to Western cartography. Almost all of the painters who painted that map in 1997 are gone now. They were children when they were forced to migrate off of their land. So it is a migration story. And it’s a testament to the power of memory as a tool against colonial erasures.
RAHEL: How do you construct your scripts and collectively build the narratives?
TUAN ANDREW: I’m currently working on a film that will have a performative element to it for Manifesta 13, which is taking place in Marseille this year. I am working with participants who were living in Squat Saint-Just, formerly the largest squat in Marseille, which burned down a couple of months ago, before we began to film. It used to shelter close to three hundred undocumented immigrants. I wanted to work with them to explore this idea of solidarity, the voice, and storytelling, and how in these circumstances the story becomes a form of currency.
In ways similar to The Specter of Ancestors Becoming, more than seventy percent of the script of this film, titled Crimes of Solidarity, are the words of the participants themselves, even though many aren’t literate. For this process—almost entirely done remotely due to the pandemic—we had a lot of discussions via the different apps out there, and I would sift through the recordings and piece together a scene. Other scenes were spoken back to me from collaborators as they would remember certain scenarios and conversations, and I would write them down, offering suggestions here and there. So the narratives aren’t traditional in any sense: oftentimes there’s no arc, and they’re slightly not cohesive, but fragmented and pieced together on thin connections.
RAHEL: You tend to be quite invisible in your films. Do you see them as documentaries?
TUAN ANDREW: I started off being really fascinated by documentary filmmaking, but I’ve moved away from it. There’s something about fiction that I find quite empowering, as it gives me a different kind of agility to imagine in ways that documentary does not. One of the things that we explore in Crimes of Solidarity is the idea of buying and selling stories in order to get to Europe. That becomes a big thing in the court system, when people are trying to claim asylum or seek political refuge: their motivations to migrate and their stories are questioned.
In these situations, maybe fictions allow other truths and understandings to be shared. They are ways of resisting erasures, of helping people maneuver in a different political context, and of conjuring empathy between disparate subjectivities.
RAHEL: Rather than having one narrator you often have two people in dialogue, speaking across time or different languages. It feels very diasporic, like parents speaking in their mother tongue and kids responding in English.
TUAN ANDREW: Your example is a good one. As children of diaspora, many of us end up being translators for our parents. I remember translating for my mom in really strange situations, and many friends my age have translated for their parents in court. Can you imagine a ten-year-old carrying that weight on their shoulders in a court of law? Remarkable, right?
That’s to say that language is so often used as a tool for oppression, especially in diasporic contexts. I feel this every time I arrive at the airport in the US and have to go through immigration. What if that was rendered not the case anymore? What if people (and animals and spirits and objects) were able to be in communication across time and space and language? In dialogue, some sort of empathy can occur even if people don’t agree, or if they maintain their own points of view or their political stance.
For The Boat People (2020) I was imagining the severed statue head as an object that has experienced the multiple waves of migration on the island and has adapted itself to the different languages that were being spoken, speaking back in English. In The Island (2017) it was the opposite: the main character was so embedded in that specific history and in being a subject stuck in between nation-states (he was technically still in the “second country”)1 that he was unable, or maybe refused, to adapt to the international language of English.
RAHEL: There’s also a coexistence of different indigenous belief systems in many of your films alongside major religions.
TUAN ANDREW: Within the context here in Vietnam, there’s a blending of multiple indigenous belief systems, most of which are based in animism and are also influenced by Buddhist thought and Chinese belief systems. I’m quite influenced by the book Vietnamese Supernaturalism (2003),2 in which Thien Do speaks about different belief systems outside of the axial religions that exist in Vietnam—that is, the small sects, goddess cults and stuff like that—where these supernaturalisms that are really embedded in animistic beliefs were a form of maintaining a local cultural identity during the hundreds and hundreds of years of Chinese and French colonialism. It’s very strong here still, and something that should be considered closely because it managed to survive colonialism, which was meant to wipe all of that out.
RAHEL: Are these beliefs particularly object- or place-rooted?
TUAN ANDREW: Yes, spiritual beliefs here are very much sited in objects and in specific locations—and in the specific locations the objects are situated in. But I also think about the dematerialization and dislocation that happens in burning rituals that are prevalent around Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, there’s a lot of burning of votive objects to be sent to the afterworld, and for me that has everything to do with a dematerialization of form and its relationship to memory. I also think about the idea of a testimonial object via Marianne Hirsch’s writings.3 So my interest is situated between how material objects can contain testimony and memory, and how dematerialization of objects can reify memory.
RAHEL: How do you approach the object-making imperative?
TUAN ANDREW: Most of the films I’ve made are inspired by objects, and I oftentimes make objects for the films, or as projects stemming from the films. For The Island we made a lot of objects that responded to the decrepit, broken statues that were left by former refugees after the camp on Pulau Bidong was closed in 1991. I’ve made ghost replicas of monuments that were destroyed for political reasons. For instance, the whole project began because there was a monument that was erected by former “boat people” who landed on Pulau Bidong to memorialize the refugee experience and express appreciation for the aid that was given to refugees at that time. This memorial was destroyed six months later. It was that particular object that became my entry point into that film. We Were Lost in Our Country also begins with an object, namely the Ngurrara Canvas II.
RAHEL: I love the idea of a painting as a land claim, the thing that helped them get back their ancestral land. Do you see all of the objects working in the same way, as a land claim, but for history or for memory?
TUAN ANDREW: Totally. I would even say that the Ngurrara Canvas painting is a monument. All monuments have their agendas and their functions. They claim specific memories over lands, landscapes, and histories. They justify fact or fiction. That’s why it was important that Confederate monuments in the US were torn down during the Black Lives Matter protests after the murder of George Floyd—they carried certain fragile fictions that we’ve all known for so long now to be detrimental to a constructive society.
RAHEL: Many of your films feature extinction scenarios, where you show the last people or animals on Earth. What’s interesting to me is that it is happening on a species level. It’s the last rhino or the last human, not just the last member of a tribe or a country.
TUAN ANDREW: When you’re thinking about the last thing or person on Earth, things have to be considered very differently and deliberately. What happens when the last object that holds testimony of an existence is gone, when memory dies? Extinction is the inability for a memory to have continuity. If we consider the body as an object or we consider the last living rhino as the last container of its species’ information, how can we think about memory and existence at that point of crisis? How do we think about the ways in which we relate to each other, to history, to our environment and the different nonhuman species around us? How does that affect how we reconsider our present? I hope to create these different worlds where we’re at the edge of history, where we’re at the edge of human extinction, where we don’t have to reiterate the colonial in order to get focused on a decolonial process. I think that’s the power of speculative fiction.
RAHEL: You do apply a lot of future strategies to the past—I guess that’s speculative history—yet the mood is rarely dystopian or pessimistic.
TUAN ANDREW: I don’t want to be dystopian. I want to see these kinds of spaces as hopeful spaces. I believe that the sensibility I’m trying to build comes from hearing the many, many stories of my parents, aunties, uncles, and grandparents when they tell of their exodus, of leaving their country of origin and diving into the unknown of migration—it’s facing the end of the world with a glimmer of hope.
RAHEL: Can you speak about the strategies you use to world-build or create atmosphere, invoke a place or region, without self-exoticizing?
TUAN ANDREW: Have you seen The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music (2014)? For me that film was a chance to explore this idea of looking and empowering. As The Propeller Group films, we were doing a lot of music videos to help different artists rebrand themselves. Oftentimes the budgets were extremely small, and the time to make something extremely short—imagine attempting to do fifty different shots in a day. Honing that way of working has helped me in what I’m doing now, because my budgets are still fairly small and my timelines are still fairly short, while the ambition is still fairly big.
The other thing about shooting music videos is that no matter whom you’re shooting, you have to make them look like they’re the most important person in the world. With The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music, which is about a community that would otherwise be so vulnerable to being exoticized, we managed to not do that, and to portray them as extremely empowered individuals. That’s a really important strategy that I bring from that background of making music videos. Every film I do has to have a little ode to that history. There’s always some sort of music video sequence where the actors break into song.
My recent films have used embodied and disembodied voices to world-build. In The Specter of Ancestors Becoming the storyteller’s voice is projected across space and time to another screen, another space, where actors from the same community embody the story, almost entranced by the voice, possessed by the power of the story. In my project for Manifesta 13, all of the eleven participants who helped me write and make this film will be on stage surrounded by the classical architecture of the music conservatory of Marseille. The actors will be sitting and facing the large LED screen showing the film, and there’s not going to be any voices in the actual film; the dialogue will instead be performed live in real time by the actors on stage—who are the same people we see on-screen.
RAHEL: Like old silent movies with the orchestras?
TUAN ANDREW: But with the voice. The old silent movies had technological limitations. We aren’t constrained by those same limitations, but we are intentionally experimenting with voice and storytelling. So the immigrants/actors are actually performing themselves again. Which is this idea that I’ve been quite interested in—as immigrants or as people without state documentation, we must perform ourselves in a very hyperreal way on a daily basis because the threat of deportation is imminent and always looming.
 “Second country” refers to a place refugees have fled, but not their final destination—an intermediate, in-between place.
 Thien Do, Vietnamese Supernaturalism: Views from the Southern Region (London: Routledge, 2003).
 See for instance Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, “Testimonial Objects: Memory, Gender, and Transmission,” Poetics Today 27, no. 2 (Summer 2006): 353–83.
Tuan Andrew Nguyen received his BFA from the University of California, Irvine, in 1999 and a MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2004. In addition to several awards in both film and visual arts, including an Art Matters grant in 2010 and Best Feature Film at VietFilmFest in 2018, his work has been shown in international exhibitions, including the Asia Pacific Triennial (2006), the Whitney Biennial (2017), the Sharjah Biennial (2019), and Manifesta 13 (2020). Nguyen cofounded The Propeller Group, a platform for collectivity that situates itself between art col-
lective and advertising company, in 2006. Accolades for the group include the grand prize at the 2015 Internationale Kurzfilmtage Winterthur and a Creative Capital award for its project Television Commercial for Communism (2011). Besides a major traveling retrospective that began at the MCA Chicago, the collective has participated in international exhibitions, including The Ungovernables, New Museum Triennial, New York (2012); the 2012 LA Biennial, Los Angeles; Prospect.3: Notes for Now, New Orleans (2014); and the 56th Venice Biennale (2015).
Rahel Aima is a writer, editor, and critic from Dubai, currently based in Brooklyn. She is the special projects editor at the New Inquiry and a contributing editor at Momus. She is currently working on a book about the art of the Indian Ocean and a collection of essays about digital culture, water politics in the Arabian Gulf, and what it means to be postwestern. Aima was a 2018 recipient of the Andy Warhol Arts Writers Grant.
Originally published in Mousse 73