As a lot of the posts on this blog have mentioned, Viet Nam, the Vietnamese, and the Vietnamese diaspora shouldn’t have their culture(s) defined in narrow ways, bound by war, the past, the Communist Party, nationalism, and fill-in-your-blank. The Propeller Group is an art collective pushing against many boundaries, and here, guest blogger Vu Thi Quynh Giao interviews them about their project “Vietnam the World Tour.” The project, scheduled to finish in 2012, will hit all continents and specifically fifteen countries. For more on Vietnam the World tour, click here.
The Propeller Group is an art collective and media production company comprised of visual artists from Saigon and Los Angeles—namely Phu Nam Thuc Ha, Matt Lucero and Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Drawn to television, film, video and the Internet in its ability to make information attractive and desired on a mass scale, The Propeller Group are manipulators of media language keen to reach a larger audience that takes the presentation of art beyond the world of gallery spaces and museums. Working with local and international film, television, music and artistic producers, The Propeller Group helps to realize collaborative statements that re-define the social and political understanding of contemporary sub-cultures and popular cultures. Their work has not only been shown on mainstream television and international film festivals but also in major museums and galleries abroad.
Gleaning the idea of Vietnam in “Vietnam The World Tour”
I met with The Propeller Group, an art collective, at a café in Saigon. Over the course of more than one hour, we discussed what they are doing and heading for, regarding their project: Vietnam The World Tour.
Giao (G): Can you tell me briefly about your fascinating project called Vietnam The World Tour (VNTWT)? I originally found it interesting as you and your friends are working to answer the question, “Who’s got the power to represent a nation?”
The Propeller Group (TPG): We’re not answering. We’re questioning. VNTWT is a big project drawing on youth culture and creative thinkers. We work together, we produce art and we transcend borders. TPG is the main contributor to the project but we also get the support from other art institutions, museums and galleries, clothing companies and spray paint companies.
G: So how do you choose the artists for this project?
TPG: They’re all experts in their fields—dancing, filmmaking, graffiti drawing, writing, and more.
G: I know they are all good. But how do you get them? Do they have any connection with Vietnam?
TPG: Some of them do, many of them don’t. It doesn’t matter that much whether they are Vietnamese-born or not.
G: You have “Vietnam” in the name of your project, don’t you? I think your group wants to rebrand Vietnam as a modern country with young and talented persons…
[I took a glance at my list of questions for the interview, and felt that what they were going to say wouldn’t fit into my expectations, and thus the many things I’d prepared to ask would just be irrelevant. I put aside my notebook and found myself being asked about nation branding. I uttered “Thailand,” and “tourist destination,” and “gay,” and “Pad Thai” (I should have added “king”). TPG reminded me about “the US” and “Hollywood, American dream, New York,” and, “money.”]
TPG: A lot of countries have been spending money on nation branding. National images are scattered everywhere. Most of them are deliberate. Propaganda is not random.
G: Still, what’s the point of having “Vietnam” right in the name of your project?
TPG: Let’s take a step back. What countries do you think are most covered by the media?
G: Probably the US, China and Japan.
[I’ve checked out buzztracker and it says—specifically—New York, Washington, Moscow, London and Havana are the top five today.]
TPG: What about Vietnam?
G: Very little international coverage of Vietnam.
TPG: That’s true today. But the conflict in Vietnam is considered the first media war.
G: Yeah I know that’s true. Vietnam was paradoxically at its media height thanks to a war.
TPG: So nation branding again. What comes to your mind when you think of Vietnam?
TPG: OK fragmented; that’s a good word. Why?
G: At first sight it’s about the North and the South. We’re too fragmented.
TPG: Any other things regarding Vietnam’s nation branding?
G: Lotus, ao dai… They are boring actually.
[I found myself being hesitant about words.]
TPG: Yet they exist, as a matter of fact. How about, let’s say, a girl at the same age as you in the US? What would be in her head when she thinks of Vietnam?
G: The Vietnam War, probably. We’re so famous for that. So overall, and again, you want to rebrand Vietnam?
TPG: Vietnam would be a very interesting case study if we were to talk about media coverage, nation branding, marketing strategies, advertising, PR, etc. We take that as a phenomenon and we’re working on VNTWT. But it’s not just about Vietnam. You can replace “Vietnam” in “Vietnam The World Tour” by any country, say, Cambodia, or Laos.
G: I insist on understanding why “Vietnam” is there. It sounds like “Vietnam The Word Tour” is “Vietnam The World Tour” just because some Vietnamese artists are leading the project?
TPG: Here is a little history on how the project all started. Our group, TPG, was invited to participate in ARTPARIS+GUESTS, and the person who was putting together this art fair asked, “Can you bring the best break-dance artists here to France? Aren’t they all in Korea?” We were intrigued that someone having various life and work experiences in many countries thought that the best break-dancers are Korean. So we would say again VNTWT is not just about Vietnam. It’s about challenging the status quo.
[By this moment, I had totally forgotten to take notes. I found myself rambling a little bit, but the conversation engaging. I understood this thing at this point, but at others, I knew nothing. I asked. They questioned. More confusion. More queries. You’ll be rewarded for reading, or at least you’ll finally say, “OK, I understood something.”]
G: It’s weird. You create complexities, yet, as I read in an article about TPG, your friends and you want to blur the line between high and low cultures. Isn’t low culture about simple things?
TPG: Low culture can be just as complex if not more so than high culture. The dichotomy between high and low is interesting because we feel we can cross-pollinate and overlap both to communicate complex ideas in a simple way, in a third space, a middle culture.
G: I want to bring up the idea of a man, whose name I forgot. He said that if we take man as he really is, we’ll make him worse. If we take man as he should be, we’ll make him capable of becoming what he can be.
[The man I was mentioning is Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor famous for “man’s search for meaning.” He died, but he’s on the Internet.]
G: Why don’t we educate people to admire great arts, instead of making simple things for everyone, and for those with no taste for arts, to understand?
TPG: I believe we can teach others to think about complex ideas. There shouldn’t be two entities as separate as high and low cultures. Low culture doesn’t mean us saying, “You are stupid. We’re creating kiddy things for you to play with.” It’s about transferring real meanings in simple forms to everyone, regardless of their backgrounds.
[It dawned on me that I’d been associating low culture with things that are interesting, playful but overall nonsense. I had not been able to differentiate between the substance and the form. It should now be remembered that creating the so-called low culture is not equivalent to undermining the audience.]
TPG: Do you know Kathryn Bigelow, who just won the Oscar for directing this year? She said that viewing art requires a lot from the audience, i.e. background information, access, etc., but a film/movie only requires your time. And she didn’t choose an easy topic. Her movie is about a war.
G: What drew you and your friends together? Those contributing to your project include different nationals. How could they let you put “Vietnam” in there? Why do they bother to be part of VNTWT, of which the very element is “Vietnam”?
TPG: We work beyond borders. It will also make sense if “Cambodia” or any country’s name is in there. We think those contributing to the project understand what we are trying to get people to think about, and they too are genuinely interested in challenging these rather simple but complex notions. VNTWT is a movement; it is not a country.
[It has become true to me that they are working on the idea of A COUNTRY (not THE COUNTRY), with its strength of youth, reaching out to the world, collaborating on a creative basis, and countering the traditional media. “Vietnam” is an example in this big concept. It is to name a movement, just like we have “postmodernism” or something of this sort.]
G: Your group is international, I must say. But the very thing is that you’ve taken the word, the concept of “Vietnam” of millions of Vietnamese. You’d better have a real reason for taking that. You think what you’re doing is a movement not necessarily rooted in Vietnam. You yourselves understand it that way. However, people will look at the brand, the “Vietnam part” in there. I hope you’re responsible for what you’re doing and what your project is producing.
TPG: We take responsibilities, surely. We ask everyone to question their own perceptions of culture, nation, identity, politics and history. Here it’s all about cultures and interpretations, not facts. We don’t claim that Vietnam is in Europe.
[I said to myself, “You’re bridging the gap between high and low cultures but you still think there are facts? Where did you get the idea of a map? I can draw. I can give you fascinating new maps of new worlds.”]
There are times when facts and interpretations clash. There are also times when we make so great interpretations that they become facts. By the end of the day, there are fundamental things which we have to protect and keep pure.
When we were about to end the conversation, Tuan, a member of the TPG, said we had discussed high and low cultures, but he felt we’d almost had a high-culture approach to the topic. That was true to my guts. Even though I’d tried to shy away from my distaste for playfulness, I couldn’t control the “fact” that it’d gone into our conversation. “What’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh.”
The meeting had totally deconstructed my original idea about their very project. I’d thought they worked on it for the sake of Vietnam, for the sake of rebranding Vietnam. However, Vietnam lends their project a name so that they can create a movement beyond borders.
This is totally different from what I’ve heard so frequently—one is that “I want to leave Vietnam behind because it was tearful to me” and the other one “I want to come back to Vietnam, help develop the country and feel my origin.” The Propeller Group, and other groups contributing to VNTWT, has a nontraditional take on Vietnam.
We said goodbye in Vietnamese, just as when were helloing each other. Nonetheless, the conversation, with all of its confusion, friction or intention, had been had in English. That’s one uniqueness of Vietnam The World Tour, which presents itself online here.
Saigon, 8 July 2010,
Vu Thi Quynh Giao is a third-year undergraduate at RMIT Vietnam, studying Public Relations and Advertising on a full scholarship. Her life-time goal is to run an open-education program where everyone can learn from each other and decide on the best way to live. Besides that, she wishes to connect thinkers and doers to help tackle climate change, especially in Vietnam, before it is too late.
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