Artist collective The Propeller Group explores, among other things, how to rebrand communism.
The Propeller Group's video installation in New York City's New Museum is deceptively approachable. The five televisions, arranged in a circle and all facing inward, show a five channel video, and viewers almost instinctively move to stand in the middle of the circle. On the screens, five different perspectives of an office meeting are displayed. Camera arranged around the meeting table capture every expression and conversation that happens. The meeting attendees sometimes laugh, sometimes argue. But mostly they look bored.
For the piece's viewers, it might be any other office scene, except the decidedly mundane activity being captured belies the slippery topic at hand. The meeting is, of all things, to rebrand communism.
The Propeller Group is an art collective out of Saigon and Los Angeles, and consists of Matt Lucera, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, and Phunam. Their video installation is one of dozens of art pieces at the museum's Triennial, an exhibition of young and rising artists from around the world. Most of the artists were born between 1975 and 1985. This year's Triennial is themed 'The Ungovernables', and the title is much a placard to the unruly nature of this generation of artists, as it is a nod to the political (or apolitical) themes of the art itself. The exhibition is "about the urgencies of a generation who came of age after the independence and revolutionary movements of the 1960s and 1970s." For The Propeller Group, this means uncovering the connections between two seemingly polar opposites: communism, and advertising.
I meet them at the New Museum's cafe and, despite the incessant buzz of foot traffic visitors and jittery museum staff, Matt Lucera and Andrew Nguyen are easy and relaxed. Indeed, these guys are probably used to stress. As artists in Viet Nam, scrutiny is nothing new to them.
"I think the economic climate [of Viet Nam] is exciting. Things are developing, business is developing, a lot of different international companies are moving to Viet Nam and a lot of international advertising companies are moving to Viet Nam," says Tuan, who has the warm presence more befitting a hip DJ than artistic ungovernable.
On top of their art work, the group also runs San Art, one of the few art spaces in Saigon.
Tuan continues, "The political climate is rigid and tense. So for artist who do the kind of work we do, and run the kind of spaces we run, we're always faced with problems like censorship, not being able to show work."
Matt, who joined the group in 2008 (Phunam and Tuan hooked up in 2006), has a brooding curiosity that informs all of his answers. He chimes in, "It's a very tough climate to be in, especially with young artists that want to produce work and are thinking about new ideas and are having a hard time expressing themselves and don't have a place to show their work and don't even have a space to really have a dialogue about it. It's really hard because people are developing their art practices in ways [that is] very new. In terms of contemporary art and people being really critical and having a critical dialogue, I think it's really important."
So why practice in Viet Nam if it's so tough?
Matt is quick to answer. "I think it's important to have that space. Without those spaces, there would be no spaces for that dialogue to happen."
The idea of dialogue and mediated experience is big in their work. Another of the group's work, titled "Vietnam The World Tour" is an attempt "to re-associate a historically colonized and mediated national identity with an entirely new mediated history." In other words, to change how Viet Nam (or any country) is perceived by changing the terms and language that perception is mediated in.
I ask them about the piece itself. Why focus on advertising?
"Living in Viet Nam, you're living in the face of constant contradictions. It's still a communist country. But it's very capitalist in many ways. But if offers the chance to see how these binary political approaches coexist together. So we decided it would be interesting if we pushed it even more. What if we could get one of the world's most famous advertising companies -- TBWA, they do Apple they do all these big brands -- why don't we get them to rebrand communism. On a negative level, it seems that communism is on it's last leg. But we drive around Viet Nam all the time and we see really old, outdated propoganda. So we thought, "[The government] have all this access to all these advertising companies. What if they just paid them to give [communism] a face lift?"
Matt adds, "It's interesting thinking on a bigger picture how nations are depicted, how they depict themselves in the media and how they are able to engage in this media landscape by hiring an agency and rebranding themselves...It's all mediated. I've never been to a socialist country. So I have all these preconceived notions. I go to Viet Nam. I arrive at the airport. I see the hammer and sickle, the red flag, the star. I go through, I see Ho Chi Minh propaganda, all this stuff. AK-47s, very militaristic. And then you get to the center of the city and I see Louis Vuitton, Kenneth Cole, and KFC and Coffee Bean and you name it. All these multinational global companies are there. So i took a step back because I wasn't sure what ideology what socialism even meant in a country like Viet Nam now in this globalist world economy. I mean it shifted all these definitions for me."
But why focus on the the process? The actual meeting itself?
Tuan: [The tissue sessions] are everything, it's the brain storm session. It's the creatives, the executive creative director, the director sitting down, throwing ideas back and forth, challenging each other, critiquing each other, questioning each other, presenting their own very subjective knowledge of things. So we thought that was interesting as they were kind of going back and questioning themselves. "What is communism? Wait, wait, it's like this." And then someone else would be, "No no, it's like this, but is it not like this?" And that, those moments, are precious, because it's a very subjective experience. But even that subjective experience is mediated...Advertising colonizes your mental space for a little bit. And I think that kind of history and that kind of power is crazy. This is what we're trying to explore
I ask them about the Diaspora, because you can't talk about Vietnam without the Diaspora. And because you can't talk about communism about some kind of Diaspora. I ask if they've ever shown their work to these communities.
Tuan finally shows some nerves. "We haven't really shown our work in that context."
"But we've talked about it," Matt finishes.
Tuan tries to find some footing: "Yeah. Yeah. You know, I think we're sometimes a even more scared to show our work in that context than to show our work in Viet Nam. It's crazy. We're no trying to disregard the history because we're all part of that history. The history of the Diaspora. The history of loss.
He pauses. "I don't know how to respond to this one."
Matt continues, "I feel it's a very emotionally tied response that some people might have. When you just say the word "communism" it [denotes] a lot of really heavy things. It might be very personal. And I feel that it's very difficult to get around that. Especially when it effects your immediate surroundings, your family, yourself. I don't think we're trying to instigate those moments but I do think we're interested in the larger context of things and how myths are formed and how certain ideologies are formed --
Tuan interrupts, "--and how so complex, the different layers and levels and relationships that happen in the midst of all this."
They relate a story of a particular, well-to-do Cuban American backer who was a supporter of art and who was interested in producing the full scale commercial. But after learning more about the project, viewing the piece, the backer wanted out. Despite efforts by the collective to clarify their position, funding was cut.
Meanwhile, back at the installation, the animatic that was the fruit of the tissue session plays. For such a high-powered agency, the resulting idea is a bit underwhelming. In the animatic, a young girl goes about town, performing little good deeds and collecting colorful "C"s in return. Eventually she distributes the C's to form a colorful star logo. It's the communist star, now in sugary Olympic flavor.
It would seem so strange that an idea as nebulous and archaic like communism could illicit such varying reactions. For some the reaction is strong reactions enough to, say, cancel funding for an art project. And for others, softer reactions that inspire cheesy TV ads. But this is precisely the point that The Propeller Group are interested in -- how do ideas get in our heads and, once they've erected tents and "colonized" our mental selves, how do they guide our guts, hearts, and actions.
And yet, of course, there's always other reactions the Matt, Tuan, and Phunam have to worry about. Could there be repercussions for showing your work here in the States, I ask?
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