diaCRITICS highlights artists and writers of the Vietnamese diaspora. In this post we feature Benedict Nguyen, a writer, dancer and artist advocate, in their own words–about movement and language and the dance of words and not-saying, as well as endeavoring to say exactly (or as much) as one intends to, with either body or words. They are the 2019 Suzanne Fiol Curatorial Fellow at ISSUE Project Room. Read on to learn more about Benedict Nguyen’s process and recent projects.
moving, unknown / vague ideas around the thing itself
I write this paragraph on a train. This moving vehicle, its windows flying past scenery inevitably idyllic at this distance, is one of my favorite places to write. My body is rarely completely still. But there’s something about being on a train that makes it so hyper clear to me that my body is in motion.
‘Everything is in motion’ is a weird platitude. Keep moving.
As an affect of a hyper-productive model worker in late capitalism, constant motion isn’t the ideal framework to talk about my artistic life. The idea of motion does help me understand the sense of urgency I feel towards so many things and the rhythm I’ve built around them over the past few years. The often solitary act of stringing words together (late night drafting) couldn’t continue without a collective nourishment (sharing, exchanging work).
This doesn’t feel too far from dancing.
In some sense, the practice of rehearsing in a studio with others makes dancing alone outside more itself. Each occasion to move arrives as if for the first time. Both processes are so iterative; trajectories of something unnamable move from the mind to the page, from the corporeal to the public, delineated a moment called performance. The outpouring of words and sweat becomes new again and again.
English is the spoken language I use most but was the second one I learned.
Sometimes there are no words that will help my body understand what I want it do. Dance can be a language but it’s also something else entirely. Against piles of drafts and track changes and their so many subsumed layers of text, I can just curl my torso and flap my arms at the air and be saying many things or nothing. Someone could try and define what a dance means to them, but any movement’s histories of meaning and its choreographed context are too many or too indeterminate to confine to words alone.
In my work writing and revising grants for other dance artists, I hope to help capture the essence of what they do while making its abstractions crystal clear. I can understand why they choose certain words to do this. I also see how these words are stretching towards the asymptote that is the work itself but never quite reaching it.
When I write essays and profiles for different publications (sometimes about dance), I’ve been asked by different editors to make an intentionally vague, open-ended point more explicit, more punchy. Maybe they meant clickbait friendly. I can sigh at the need to cater to a SEO-engaged readership who just wants to understand what I’m trying to say exactly. I can also stop flittering around a point and just say something exact. To make anything often feels like a problem-solving—of finding the time for it, of the knots in the thing itself. Some say performance’s ephemerality is over-romanticized (and I suppose I’m guilty here) but aren’t the most beautiful, affecting things too short-lived?
So, I’ll make clear statements and find space for the ambiguity in other ways. Even within the longest essay, I can hold onto details for myself and (try to) write an airtight paragraph around them. When I’m performing, the rushes and swirls within my sack of skin feel like their own artistic work incidental—sometimes even independent—of ‘choreography.’ The epidermal, even unshrouded by make-up or costume, is itself just one cross section of the body. I’m not just trying to perform enigma; I’m affirming that not everything can be said in every context.
Sharing this actually feels like a kind of exposure.
The authentic vulnerability expected of artists is its own currency that I don’t trade in easily. I’ve been scared of sharing feelings about my identity, my complicity, and even my then-employer on the internet. But the kinds of push back and tense conversations that have come out of pieces I’ve published have been generative and revealing. It’s revealed who else sides with people over institutions. In other pieces, I just get to shine a light on how fellow artists do it: queer suit designer Thúy H. Nguyen, Golden Thread tarot designer Tina Gong, and dancer / dancemaker Johnnie Cruise Mercer, among others.
Over this year, I’ve taken on a new experiment-practice. I’ve been curating ‘soft bodies in hard places’ at ISSUE Project Room. This platform has helped take some of the questions articulated here ‘off the page’ and into a process of supporting work that becomes live performance. I’ve asked artists what it means to be in a time and a place together, one intertwined with histories and ongoings of colonization, astrology, and the practices of the artists themselves. Seeing the work reach people and raise questions feels like those insides yearning towards a multiple of people beyond. But unlike a grant application, this reaching feels like the work.
The beauty of being in process is that I don’t have to say anything more declarative about it than that. I don’t think there’s a useful ‘hot take’ on ‘impact’.
I’ve seen too often an institution’s skepticism in an artist’s vision or a disinterest in understanding an artist’s methods. In this curatorial experiment, I’ve been met with some expectation for a sharper frame within which I expect folks to create. Of course, there are limitations—time, space, money. But as much as I can, I hope there’s possibility. To shift the power dynamics and recalibrate an artist’s relationship between the insides they pool from and the institutional frame we often create for; to generate something that vibrates at fulfilling frequencies.
In October 2018, I began a writing experiment towards these flows for myself in an e-newsletter, first quarter moon slush. The publisher definitely measures its ‘impact’ but I can nearly not care. Crafting these performative prose poems, tweet compilations, and astrology-adjacent musings has become one of the most nourishing parts of my writing practice over the past few months. It’s an arbitrary deadline that exists bigger than anything a human or institution can assign. It’s been a way to share (however vaguely) private parts of my practice and experiment with form in ways that I haven’t been able to with mainstream media. These games find play in the little worlds I offer people on their screens before being subsumed by the next email.
Writing for an audience can feel permanent but the actual writing itself feels like symbols flitting across a page, trying to grasp at a moment, a feeling, an idea. It’s a circling against linear time, an intervention of rhythm through absences, new words written, some to be deleted,I haven’t yet mentioned that I write fiction and won’t go into detail now, but haven’t I’ve been talking about storytelling the whole time?
A second-generation Vietnamese American, Benedict Nguyen is a writer, dancer, and arts advocate currently based in the South Bronx, NY. They publish a biweekly-ish newsletter “first quarter moon slush.” For more info, visit benedict-nguyen.com / Instagram + Twitter @xbennyboo