The Propeller Group discusses Vietnamese graffiti, infiltrating the advertising world and their upcoming show at the Guggenheim.
When Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam, and Matt Lucero started The Propeller Group in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006, achieving their goal of large-scale collaboration with Vietnamese artists proved both complicated and unpredictable. The collective’s work, blending interests in the visual arts, video, media, and popular culture, is both ironic and earnest, with a political awareness that lurks just below the surface. The Propeller Group straddles a new space between the art gallery and the media world, with an interdisciplinary and border-crossing appeal. By playing with cultural boundaries and bringing artists from around the world to Vietnam, they upend viewers expectations and, it appears, the expectations of the artists themselves. You can see their video project, Television Commercial for Communism, at the Guggenheim’s No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia exhibit, opening on February 22nd in New York.
This interview was conducted over the phone with Tuan Andrew Nguyen in Los Angeles, followed by a second Skype call with Tuan, joined by Phunam and Matt Lucero in Ho Chi Minh City.
Diane Mehta What inspired you to establish the collective?
Propeller Group Matt and I [Tuan] started doing collaborative projects while we were at CalArts in 2003-2004. At CalArts, we were organizing public events and symposiums and also doing collaborative projects with other artists too.
In 2005, I met Phunam in Vietnam. There wasn’t a lot happening in the arts scene that really intrigued us at the time, so we began to make video and films together. We noticed graffiti in Vietnam for the first time—when we started asking around, we discovered it was this one kid in Hanoi, Linkfish. He was inspired by the graffiti on Mear One’s 1999 Significant One album cover for Limp Bizkit and was trying to figure out what it all meant in a Vietnamese context.
In 2006, with Spray it, Don’t Say it, we began documenting graffiti artists, who were just starting to adopt American-style graffiti and place it in the Vietnamese landscape. Phunam and I continued shooting documentaries but quickly discovered that it was difficult to film in public without the proper permissions. We decided to register as a film production company—forming a company would make it easier to get the paperwork done—but realized that if we set up as an advertising company instead, we could film in public, rent out billboards, buy media space on TV channels, and generally have more freedom.
DM So you’re a collective that pretends to be an advertising company?
PG Yeah, but it’s more than that. We were all graffiti artists in one form or another in our youth, and as young graffiti artists, we abhorred advertising. It was a “colonization” of our public space. Ad agencies and media conglomerates, in our opinion, were wolves in sheep’s clothing.
After years of wrestling with these ideas, we finally figured out a more compelling relationship to the industry: Infiltrate it. We’re invested in trying to understand how “image” is produced and that’s what we’re totally interested in—the public image as produced through media and advertising, and the creation of meaning and social affect.
Working in media and advertising has given us a vantage point from which we can explore the strategies involved in the creation and widespread dissemination of ideas. And it’s not much different than propaganda.
DM Your video project, Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC), is in the Guggenheim’s No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia exhibit, opening on February 22. For TVCC, you commissioned the Vietnamese ad agency TWBA to rebrand communism in a positive light for American audiences. How did that come into being?
PG We asked the agency to imagine that the last five remaining communist countries hired them to create a global advertising campaign to rebrand the idea of communism.
The idea came in part from living in Vietnam. In 2006, Vietnam entered the WTO and a few years before that, the country opened its doors to corporations outside to both exist and do business here. A lot of multinational global corporations began popping up, and along with them, advertising. In the past, the advertising in Vietnam was largely state-sponsored propaganda—and that still exists today. The strange thing is seeing state propaganda cohabitating right next to advertisements for a major soft drink company.
TVCC also came out of an interest in nations rebranding themselves. While we were doing research, Australia hired Saatchi and Saatchi to rebrand the country. The result was strange, as the final design used stereotypical elements that you’d think of when imagining Australia. It’s reminiscent of a project by Komar and Melamid called The Most Wanted Painting, where they surveyed groups of people based on geography and asked them what constituted their idea of a good painting. Komar and Melamid transformed that research into paintings that represent the opinions of each specific location. They did this project all over the world and each painting came out wildly different.
DM In TVCC, a conversation among the ad agency writers struck me. One fellow said, on communism, “Everyone works together to make sure everyone is happy, healthy, well-fed, and taken care of. It’s actually really sweet.” That became the gist of the commercial. How do you feel about the agency’s process?
PG Initially, there was a struggle to define communism. They fell back on the Wikipedia definition of communism, which is more aligned with Marx’s economic theories of socialism. The project presented a range of views from a Chinese American, Vietnamese American, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Indian and a Tibetan; a successful focus group for a global client. In the end, it is hard to be objective with such complicated ideas.
Not everyone was keen on participating. We met with a friend, Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, for the director role in final commercial—he’s a young, successful Tibetan filmmaker and he had concerns over how the Tibetan community would view his participation in the project, given the hardships and oppression they face from China, the biggest remaining communist country. Of course, we weren’t promoting the ideology of communism, rather, we explored its relationship to capitalist ideology in the form of the television commercial, which we think nods to a larger global shift in the marketplace today. Once Gyalthang understood our intentions, he felt he could challenge himself and challenge the viewer of the commercial in a constructive way.
His treatment dramatically shifted the agency’s initial idea, which was to create an animated 3-D world, where people exchanged colorful cut-out smiles. These smiles would become the flag of “new communism.” But Gyalthang changed the concept to include live actors, not paper cut-outs. He then panned the camera around those actors, who are stationary and appear “frozen” in oddly ecstatic states of joy. Seeing the actors immobile, with big smiles, captured these moments of happiness and “humanism” promised by the communism in the commercial—and it made that communist dream of happiness seem slightly perverse. He added a layer of critique onto the project, which we didn’t expect.
DM Originally, graffiti was supposed to be about secrecy and subversion. How has the art form changed and what is it about graffiti that you’re most interested in conveying?
PG In Vietnam, we are interested in graffiti as the act of a young generation that has grown up in an authoritarian regime and is struggling to find an individual voice by creating markings in public space.
Graffiti has always been an accessible public form of expression, whether it was an artistic endeavor or a form of advertising. It was really the early train workers, hobos, travelers, and soldiers—who started writing monikers on freight trains in the 1930s—who were the true pioneers of graffiti in the United States. They wrote their names in a unique style as a way of becoming better known. Freight cars traveled across the country and spread the message: “I was here, and there, and there and there!”
It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that graffiti developed a tighter sub culture with more complex language and its own set of rules. It had become widespread, we think, as a direct response to advertising being displayed in public spaces. In Vietnam, the scene is now so vibrant and full of energy that graffiti artists are importing special paint and spray caps, and most are intensely keen on honing their artistic skills.
Graffiti is such a valuable and important form of expression, especially in the context of Vietnam, where anything art-related done in the public space needs approval from the Ministry of Culture to be displayed. It’s cool to see how the youth here are taking graffiti and making it their own form of expression while pushing against the Ministry of Culture at the same time. The importance of the act is still at the heart of things everywhere in the world and we believe that graffiti still has the potential to impact culture by its sheer presence alone.
DM What about large-scale work interests you—the process of making art or the public response to it?
PG We’d be lying if we said that we didn’t get a rush from each public response. And while we don’t always get to witness an immediate or visceral response to our work, it has definitely been a motivating force behind our projects. The discussions, the research, and the interactions that come out of the “making of the art” are the necessary icing on the cake.
DM How do you choose your collaborators?
PG We spend a lot of time doing research, mostly online, trying to locate cultural producers who are engaging or attempting to engage people. We follow individuals or small subcultures, and try to absorb what fascinates those people.
DM You’ve been featuring artist collaborations in your project, Viet Nam: The World Tour (VNTWT), since 2010. Your “mission” for VNTWT is “We don’t subscribe to those traditional and problematic notions of nation. Nations give way to conflict.”
PG We began to get interested in “nation-branding”—specifically, in how brand-making strategies typically used to sell products are being used by nations to improve their images. We challenged ourselves to re-brand Vietnam, which we consider to be one of the most profoundly media-defined nations in recent history. In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s history had become determined by archives—books, articles, images, documentation, film/video footage, movies, music—which are concerned primarily with the war. We wanted to shift that association and build a new archive—one that we, The Propeller Group, create.
Our plan was to create an alternate “brand” for Vietnam, with a new logo, marketing campaign, slogan, and viewership. We would gear the marketing campaign to a young audience, one that was more adept and in tune with the new “archive”—the Internet. Each hit on our videos or websites would be a “re-branding” moment. Is there force behind the volume of viewers? Close to a million viewers have checked out our websites, and on YouTube we have thousands of subscribers and nearly a half-million viewers. What does that say, and does that matter?
DM Your work is very calculated about presenting a hip and alternative perspective on Vietnam. Isn’t that a kind of re-branding?
PG We’re not interested in branding artists in terms of their nationality at all. In fact, the attempt is to do the opposite-to involve artists from all over the world so the “nation-brand” of Vietnam becomes open to new possibilities, new definitions. That’s why we like to call it a “rogue anti-nation-branding campaign.”
For example, for VNTWT, we forged a collaboration between the Kabul artist Shamsia Hassani and the Los Angeles artist El Mac. Together they created a traveling mural, Birds of No Nation.
This gets back to challenging the cultural archive of Vietnam. Perhaps, one day, people will type in “Vietnam” and they’ll get Birds Of No Nation instead of facts or propaganda about the Vietnam War. We’d like to replicate what happened when members of the band Pussy Riot were imprisoned for performing, in early 2012, on the pulpit of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. Before Pussy Riot, you’d type “Putin” into a search engine and you’d get “Putin.” After the arrests, you would type in “Putin” and get “Pussy Riot.” As we played with the idea of nation branding, we tried to hit that kind of media scale through the Internet. So, re-branding becomes more of an un-branding as we play with the historical archive—and, at some point, the Internet results adjust.
DM You asked artists in the village of Dafen, China, to create self-portraits with the paintings they make for hire, in Regional Reproduction (2012). You were referring to a similar Dafen project by REGIONAL, an international collective.
PG Dafen is responsible for producing more than 60% of the oil paintings that are commissioned for commercial and residential development projects around the world. In 2007, international news of Dafen as the source of all of these reproduction paintings raised quite a stir. REGIONAL created a project about the artists and art coming out of Dafen. We loved it and decided to reproduce it as our own project in 2012.
The whole project is about reproduction, about issues surrounding copyright and intellectual property, about value, and about the complexities of those relationships in our current global economy. We wanted to take this idea of image reproduction and the mass commodification involved in re-painting master works by Van Gogh, Renoir, etcetera, and apply that to a conceptual practice—including ourselves as a layer of "pirates" in the cycle.
The main difference between our project and REGIONAL’s is that we included ourselves and our practice inside the work. Formally, our project is only slightly different from REGIONAL’s work in that with us, the painters were free to paint their self-portraits in any style, but in the REGIONAL project, the painters painted in the style that reflected the painters that they specialized in copying.
DM The result feels very intimate, with these seemingly humble and self-effacing portraits placed beside the grand paintings they make for others. How did the artists respond?
PG The responses were mixed. Some artists were so immersed in the production of commodity paintings that they were uncomfortable with the idea of painting themselves—or anything that required thinking about the content. There were also some very meaningful instances during which we felt an artist realized the importance of painting him or herself in the scope of art history surrounding the village.
DM You also did another project with the artists of Dafen.
PG The workstations of the artists in and around the studios in Dafen resembled incredibly beautiful Abstract Expressionist paintings. These were unintentional gestures left behind from the process of creating all of these commodity paintings. Phunam became interested in the walls themselves as a natural extension of an ongoing project that he had been working on called Pati-nation.
Pati-nation is a photography project that started when Phunam began documenting the walls outside of government buildings in Vietnam. The walls resembled abstract paintings, with layers of decaying paint chipping off. They’re poetic and simple images that say a lot metaphorically about the current political state of things in Vietnam—but without being overtly political.
Phunam produced the series of photographs while in Dafen, as it fit perfectly in line with the Pati-nation project, now in a different context with different metaphorical meanings. We loved the photographs and had a crazy idea of attempting to reproduce them by asking one of Dafen’s most esteemed reproduction artist to turn the photograph into a painting. The unconscious and abstract marks made on these walls were now turned into conscious, intentional marks and we make it a point to show the photograph and the painting together, side by side.
DM What’s in the works for 2013?
PG We’re shooting an action film at the end of the year, based in Vietnam, about an unlikely hero. She is a young and apathetic street sweeper who suffers from amnesia. She gets sudden bouts of amazing fighting abilities and realizes she has a responsibility to fight crime. As she does, she gets closer to solving the mystery of who she really is. Think The Dark Knight Begins + Kung-Fu + Kick-Ass + Shaolin + Inception + The Little Buddha, but with a much smaller budget.
We’re also doing a series of works with and about the first Asian astronaut in space, Pham Tuân, which will culminate in a documentary film. Tuân happened to be the Vietnamese fighter pilot who downed the only B-52 in aerial combat during the war in Vietnam (other B-52s were downed by surface-to-air missiles). At that time, Russia had an “Interkosmos” space program to give nations on friendly terms with the Soviet Union access to space missions. It became an extension of the Cold War space race and seemed to be an effort to build an utopian image on a Russian space station.
The documentary juxtaposes Tuân’s story with that of a successful businesswoman, Madame Thao, who is creating the first large-scale amusement theme park in Vietnam. Thao came from royal lineage but her family lost everything after the war. Through persistence and business savvy, she rebuilt her family’s empire. She decided to create a theme park to give the children of Vietnam—those who didn’t have means to travel—an imaginary utopia. In the documentary, we will explore these two ideas of utopia post-Cold War.
For more on The Propeller Group, visit their website.
Diane Mehta is a writer in Brooklyn. She has written a book about poetry and is shopping a novel about a mixed-race couple in 1946 Bombay.