Artist Profile: Huong Ngo

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 Huong Ngo is part of Fantastic Futures, a 2011 Rhizome Commissions winner for their proposal, Fantastic Futures

Acting the Words is Enacting the World, 2011 more at Enacting the Words Photo: Dwayne Dixon

Your Rhizome commission is a continuation of the Fantastic Futures project (which already includes recordings of birds in Baghdad and someone making tea in Brooklyn). It seems to be another in a continuing series of projects exploring contemporary education practices and ways of learning like Secret School and "How To Do Things With Words." How do you see this project fitting into your larger educational practice? What sort of transformations do you hope to see in education that could result from a project like Fantastic Futures?

Yes, it’s continuing a collaboration with a group of students in the US (in particular at Parsons The New School for Design) and at the University of Baghdad, that began with And Longing is No Longer Sleeps (the project that we did for the exhibit “How to Do Things With Words”), and further develops some of the collaborative processes from Secret School (a curatorial and discursive project about pedagogy), Acting the Words is Enacting the World, a project with artist Hong-An Truong and a group of young folks completed this past summer, and generally the strategies and techniques that I use in my classes.

Our goals for Fantastic Futures are fairly modest: we aim towards facilitating a diversity of exchanges (experiential, social, political, etc), advocating for a free and open cultural commons, leaving a gesture that serves as a collective protest against past and future violence. Nevertheless, I always secretly hope that something from our collective process is transformative for all involved.

In an interview for the Walker Art Center, you talk about preferring to keeping these education oriented projects 'outside the realm' of artistic context. Yet in their presentation and mode, these projects often seem to have artistic elements. I'm interested in what you see as separating the two.

I understand the importance of an artistic context for having critical reflection of the work, but the life of the art need not be limited to that. Currently, I’m working on projects that are online, that are performed in people’s homes and music venues, that are tested and developed in the classroom, and that are worn on people’s bodies. Some of these lives might be represented in an art context, but that might just one slice of its existence in the world. It’s a new way of working for me, but I find it to be a refreshing challenge to discover a daily existence with my work. I’ve been reading Christina Kiaer’s Imagine No Possessions about the Constructivists’ relationships to their everyday objects―one of camaraderie rather than ownership. It is a beautiful way of thinking that might be worth revisiting.

Your multi-media installations and sculptures such as Stratocumulus and Kosmolet seem quite fanciful and relatively other-worldy but also seem to have a distinct social and collaborative component. Even as you maintain the aforementioned separation between the two modes, do you find that ever they inform one another? How do you see sculptures like Dark Star functioning in your practice? 

There are some projects like Escape and Pop-Up Studio where the objects are quite integral as functioning architecture and metaphors for social structures. Right now, I'm working on a collaborative project with Or Zubalsky about the Mercury 13, a group of women tested to become astronauts in 1959-1963 (the program was jointly shut down by Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and NASA for political reasons). So far, the project involves research, videos, performance, and even music but this micro-architecture seems to find its way back into my practice, so I see inflated, blobby futuristic clouds in my horizon. Actually, I always thought of the Dark Stars as black holes, so maybe I should say... in my event horizon!

 


 

 

Age:

64 going on 13.

Location:

Yes! I am a body that exists in this world. It is usually in Brooklyn or Manhattan these days, but would like to be in Mongolia or Antarctica ... soon.

How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

I think of language as my primary technology, so in that case, I started speaking Vietnamese as a child and then English once I started school in the United States. Speaking of, I was just reading a book about reading (Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid) about how your brain wires itself differently depending on which language you learn first. My brain operates differently in Vietnamese than in English or even if I am learning a new language today. Noticing these subtle differences has helped me understand how the brain learns and responds to different demands at various stages in life. 

My dad has an engineer-brain and would always bring home motors and things for my brother and I to tinker with, so I started to learn to fix mechanical and electrical objects when I was around 8. My mom and my grandmother always wrote poetry and made things with their hands, so I learned technology needed to construct objects and metaphors from them. As far as digital technology, I took a Turbo Pascal (!) class in high school and used to program fun things on my graphing calculator. 


Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

I don't have set tools, but prefer to stay versatile and use whatever tool is appropriate. I love learning and creating new processes for construction. My sister gave me a book when I was 10, I think it was called Crafts and Hobbies or something. It covered all of these different “traditional” skills for construction. I loved it! I think I tried everything in the book, down to découpage and macramé. Hobbies are a very powerful foundation of the secret revolution. 

I came to digital technology because it was a new way to construct. Like many other people, my first response to web programming and animation technology was NOT to make websites for businesses, but to make weird flashing spazzy clicking breathing living things that could operate in such a different way from everything I knew in the world. It's still refreshing to see artists revive these original pleasures even as these technologies have become more ubiquitous.

Did you study art in school? 

Yes, but my first love was always science. I was a shy child and just wanted to learn about how the world worked. I adored making my own microscopic slides and being outside looking at bugs, mosses, the sky, etc. I memorized bird songs and animal tracks. I didn't study art seriously until college, but even then was attracted to artists/scientists like James Turrell or Étienne-Jules Marey who devoted their lives to understanding and representing phenomenology, or the limits thereof. I came to the art world because it offered another way of exploring these early epistemological interests.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I always return to sewing and collaging, which are like sketching to me. I love words and they find their way into my work in mysterious ways. The more I can relate the corporeal to the technological, the richer the work is for me. 

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

I play music with Or Zubalsky as The Youngest (and sometimes Juviley). I've just started playing songs written by Bertholt Brecht with a group of friends at the Whitney Independent Study Program. We perform under the super geeky name: The Society of the Brechtacles. I also play music with housemates and with my family (we just had our annual talent show). I'm a big advocate for social and economic justice, so I do community organizing and activism that is related to my art practice.

What do you do for a living? Do you think your job relates to your art practice in a significant way? 

I teach. This is hugely related to my art practice as an organizer and an advocate for social justice. I also try out a lot of games, performance strategies, and facilitation techniques in the classroom.  This last semester, I taught a class called [Un]Fashion in the integrated design program at Parsons where the students developed their own processes for garment construction. This class was incredibly helpful for me in returning to a consistent object-making practice and rearticulating the importance of material research and knowledge. It was also an interesting place to discuss the OWS movement and economic inequality. These students have the tools to bring about a revolution!

Who are your key artistic influences? 

Yoko Ono, Virginia Woolf, hollAnd, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Beckett. Right now, I'm really into Olivier Messiaen, to whom I was introduced by a friend Sam Ishii-Gonzalez. Look him up on YouTube. Wow. I’ve also been listening to Mountain Man nonstop recently. These ladies are the business.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

Yeah, I have some steady collaborators with whom I've worked with through the years. Most notably, I've worked with my good friend Hong-An Truong on quite a few projects that have really long names: Acting the Words is Enacting the World (along with a fantastic group of students), AND, AND, AND - Stammering: An Interview, and The Book of the Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy Made to Withstand the Effects of Time. On Fantastic Futures, I work with Or Zubalsky, Andrew Persoff, Ali Salim Abood, and a slew of amazing students from the US and Iraq. There are many more wonderful collaborators: Caroline Woolard, George Monteleone, Alexander Stewart, Colin McMullan, Rob Allen (a friend who I’ve know since middle school), Melanie Crean, and even Rhizome’s own Mark Tribe! 

Do you actively study art history?

Sure, though I am much more interested in a more general category of visual culture because I can then explore many different histories and sites of reception. I love learning about the history of photography because of its connections to scientists, artists, and amateurs. I also love it for bringing art to a crisis and revealing art for what it is--a human construction that finds value not just in its use, but also in the structure of belief around it. I studied with Jonathan Crary at Columbia University for a couple of semesters and I really appreciate his perspective on modernity and visual history. Even though he’s often talking about the 19th century, his work always feels like a fresh perspective on our own cultural moment.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

Yes, here's an eclectic assortment of philosophical badasses that have inspired me over the years (This feels like the funniest shout out ever): Bell Hooks, Myles Horton, Paolo Freire, Roland Barthes, Gayatri Spivak, Jorge Luis Borges, Deleuze and Guattari, Judith Butler, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Nietzche. What all of these folks have in common for me is that they are interested in revealing the invisible and questioning existing structures of power, which they usually do in their own beautiful, sometimes humorous, always radical way.

I used to read a lot of psychoanalysis--Freud, Jung, Lacan--they still resonate with me though I now have a healthy skepticism and critical distance from them. Through the art program that I’m in, I’ve been reading a bit of David Harvey, Stuart Hall, and Raymond Williams. Currently, I'm reading Pamela Lee's Chronophobia and Nicholas de Monchaux’s beautiful Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo that Nancy Lim turned me onto.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you’re concerned about?

I’m concerned about a general blind march towards technology and a conflation of novelty with progress. I have noticed more than a few museums that have turned contemplative spaces into zones of overstimulation with screens, lights, and buttons that beg for attention but don’t ask for attentiveness. I’ve seen students building huge power-guzzling contraptions that perversely are meant to speak about some vague notion of sustainability and artists that are still making “arm-waving” installations that ask participants to wave their arms or dance to actualize the work.

These versions of programmed interaction do not replace the important work of critical inquiry, poetic engagement, social and political empowerment, or epistemological investigation that art has the capacity to do. Having attended a graduate program in Art & Technology, I’m also guilty of either having made these kinds of things or thinking about making them. Maybe it’s a phase we go through in having access to all of this newness, but hopefully one that we can move past. Perhaps I am wrong and there is something productive in this tension between the pleasures of experimentation and the necessity of criticality. I suppose that’s where the art is.

In regards to our society’s relationship with technology in general, I’m much more concerned with the increasing commodification, privatization, and regulation of our social relations and leisure time, the erosion of speech rights online and off, and the potential dissolution of net neutrality. The ideal of the internet as a commons is something for which we can and should fight.  

I think about the future quite a bit. “New Media Art” (the term already feels quite old) has the ability to reference both our present moment and invoke our society’s ideals about the future, so I wonder how within this discourse, we can imagine our future with fewer gadgets and other possessions (but ones that we learn to repair and care for), more time for each other, and more art in our every day. That would really be fantastic.