Sue Hajdu: On Meaningful Participation
Sue Hajdu [SH] is an artist and curator based in Ho Chi Minh City.
Transcript from telephone interview with Markuz Wernli Saitô [MWS] on April 18, 2007.
What brought you to Vietnam?
SH: The first time I was a tourist. That was a time when I started to be seriously interested in photography. I had this romantic dream that I could go live and travel in Vietnam and just be an artist, so I came back the next year. That was in 1994 and I started seriously photographing.
You grew up in Sidney?
SH: No, I grew up in Melbourne and I lived in Sidney the last ten years and my parents are Hungarian, hence I have this strange name.
So you followed your dream and went to Vietnam...
SH: No, it was vaguer than that. I didn't even know if I wanted to do commercial photography or not. I was just interested in photography and it took me about two or three years to understand in what area of photography I was interested. At that time Vietnam appeared to me very cheap, so I thought I could live here and eat for 50 cents a day... not have to do any work and just go around and be a photographer. But it wasn't so simple.
What happened in the meantime?
SH: Ha ha, reality! I was seriously photographing here in the first year and half. I did my first exhibition here. Of course I had to work from time to time in between. The other big problem I encountered was that Vietnam was very cut off then from the outside world and I could not really develop enough as a photographer. I basically was interested in art, even though I didn't really understand it back then. I couldn't see exhibitions, I couldn't talk to people, I couldn't ask questions about technical stuff easily in English. It was very difficult for me to grow, so I decided to move back to Australia after a year and a half. Then I was based in Sidney like before, I was working at my old job and I used to come to Vietnam twice a year and photograph. In that process over the next three years or so my photographic practice came to define itself as an artistic practice and I did more exhibitions more projects. My voice as a photographer became clearer. Then I was working to get my masters in Sidney and I did that in photographic art, so photo media at an art school. Already before I got my masters I decided to move back here, because this was really the only city that I wanted to be.
What makes Saigon your city, your home?
SH: For the time being it is home, but I never thought that I would live my whole life here. And that's very clear in my mind. The attraction was to the energy here, it is a very energetic kind of place. Also my eyes as a photographer became so connected to the way things look here. I noticed this when a Hanoi artist once came to visit me in Sidney and he saw my photographs of Vietnam and he said: "oh my god, it's so Saigon!" So I think it is these two things.
The limitations are very evident. We also realized, for example, a lot of top level curators do come through Vietnam, but they come through to visit famous people, and that there is no contact that is made with the community. It is all kind of personal and private. In a place like Vietnam which is still quiet isolated, where there are no opportunities for artists to interface with the outside world we thought that this is really a wasted opportunity, and that we could create opportunities like that for outside and inside to interface. Those were kind of the starting points. This was in the middle of 2004. We spent six months researching on- and offline, brainstorming to what were the equivalents to what we were thinking of internationally. We actually did a research trip to Cambodia, which sounds strange because you would think it is less developed than here. But actually we got some really good information from that trip. We did a trip to Singapore a month or two later. I went to the Pusan Biennale on another project and met some good people there. So for about six months we developed the idea and at the start of 2005 we started the initiative.
And how does this connect to my practice? I actually started curating before that but I didn't really realize what I was doing. I curated my father's images in the past and I had already started writing professionally about art. Basically what this meant is a huge explosion in my practice that now sort of covered three areas: my own visual arts practice, curating and writing as well as arts management in general. They are all at the heart of what I do and I would be quiet reluctant to give any one of them up. Suddenly I was spending 24 hours of my day on art-related things whereas in the past that has been very difficult. This also became much more the case when later in 2005 I started teaching at an international University here. I teach at a multimedia program but I can sneak in a lot of art. My income also arises from this. It is quiet a different situation to where I was personally three years ago. Suddenly really 18 hours of my day is consisting of art-related activities.
You did substantial research to define what space, what initiative you would like to establish.
SH: Yes, we looked at alternative art spaces, artist-run initiatives around Asia and beyond to the extend that we could. Because there were no books that you could check. Now ALBB has a collection of books but then that wasn't the case. We looked around the internet as much as we could, so we became aware of what are the sights in Singapore, what are the places in Indonesia, who is doing what in Korea, things like this. A couple of months later we made a trip to Singapore and we met every initiative and space and talked about what we are planning to do. We asked their opinions, we asked for their advice we did interviews with them. We also did a lot of talking ourselves about policies, methodologies, relationships, how we are gonna operate. We still were trying to find our identity so to say.
Did you also look into your relations to the local community and Vietnamese artists?
SH: Not really. At that time ALBB had three co-directors, one who was Vietnamese. He gave us his particular view point, which is probably a bit more Vietnamese than ours, although Motoko Uda and I both of us had been living here for a long time so we are pretty aware of what the situation is. We also kept it basically secret. We didn't tell people what we were planning to do because we didn't know yet what we were going to do. Sometimes in this place people talk a lot of crap, I don't talk specifically about artists here but people feel actually bigger than they are and I am gonna do this, and I am gonna do that, and things sometimes don't work out. So we just went quietly about our business. That's one part of it. The other part is that earlier that same year I had done a consultancy for a company here that wanted to open an art space, like an art center. They were a company that was going to develop a new part of Saigon, a new area of Saigon. At that point I spent about three months intensively researching the global scene and at that point I had spoken to a lot of artists here.
Those conversations were very recent. The other thing is – now this might be a bit surprising for somebody who grew up, let's say in a "first world place" – is that artists here have very, very little idea of what the alternatives are. Even when you ask them they can't give you an answer. They don't know what to imagine beyond this. And there is a kind of, in some ways a kind of imaginative obstacle or something comes up. This also relates to proactiveness which is not a strong feature here in the art scene. And even artists who are responding to the local situation – like everybody complains about the government and the way institutional structures exist here. About an year ago I was talking to some young photo-based artists about that and I said "well, how do you want this to change?" The response to summarize it was generally that they want this to stop but they can't imagine an alternative. Like there is nothing that they want, there is something that they want not to be, but they can't tell me what they want to be.
Does this justify that an outsider like you infuses the local art scene with such an initiative?
SH: It's a complicated situation. I am not sure "justifies" is the right word but I think one of the realities here – that you have to admit – is that change is brought from the outside. To talk like that suddenly puts you in this awkward situation because of colonial past etc. but if you consider this in a more generic way in terms of human societies or how humans think. It's pretty rare for people to get new ideas internally. I mean if you think about how artists work, how designers work: it's very rare for somebody to sit by themselves on a rock for a month in isolation and think up something new. We usually think up something new by looking around us and bouncing off what others are doing. Think about it in this abstractive way then that's a situation where newness is coming from at sight. And it's the way you combine those things or what you bring into it on your own. But is a relationship between me internally, the creator, and outside beings. So if you abstract that out to a more national level here in Vietnam then you can see the point I am trying to make that new ideas come from the outside. One of the issues is that very few Vietnamese artists travel well some do but somehow...
Also, internet is everywhere here, every street has internet cafes but very few artists are proactive about finding out what's going on out there. Of course there are language barriers but it's more than that. Those artists who do know what's going on out there are the ones who basically take it on as their task to teach themselves English and make it their business to get out via the internet and find out what's going on. Really that's less individuals than I can count on one hand. Now there are other artists who speak English well who do get opportunities to go overseas because they are on funded projects who don't have that kind of proactive thinking. More or less what they gain from these outside contacts begins and ends with their own practice. It doesn't really go much beyond that. The people here who are kind of doing things that are different, that are a different mold to the salon type white cube gallery – and really there is only one white cube in Saigon that is actually run by a Vietnamese who grew up in the USA. You can understand why she running a truly professional gallery. She has brought in the ideas from her experience outside. I think you have to sort of recognize that mostly these kinds of initiatives do from people who grew up outside of Vietnam. Not all of them but most. I think this will change when Vietnamese-Vietnamese go overseas to do undergraduate or postgraduate study in visual art that has not happened yet.
How did you start working with participation and engagement with your environment in your own practice? What does participation mean for you?
SH: You're speaking about my own projects. I think that MAGMA is a pretty good dividing line in terms of my personal practice. The idea for MAGMA came before ALBB was launched. But because of various personal difficulties I couldn't realize it. It got realized last year in the context of me already working within ALBB. It was the first project I did that was a performance. So my first engagement with performance art. It was not the first collaborative project I did. I have collaborated quiet a lot before. But it was the first project I had to have people other than me performing. If you want to consider these people the artists you could say or to some extend the protagonists. I actually called them The Sleepers. They were not collaborator in the conception. I think when you are collaborating with another artist, you are collaborating in the conception and building up the concept of what it is.
Could you imagine that you could collaborate in the conception also with somebody else than an artist?
SH: On a theoretical level yes. Although I think it depends on where you want to be with your practice, what kind of practice you want and how much... control is not the right word because as soon as you are collaborating it is a shared kind of control. Do you want that? Do you want a non-artist building up the idea with you or making it their own, or contributing or whatever? I have never been in that position. Although the project I am working on right now and that is a collaboration with another artist that has a theater background, not visual art. For each phase of the project we would with other participants / collaborators. I am not sure what to call the just yet. Also I can't talk about this project in detail because it's being run in secret and we are gonna reveal it at the end as to the whole global context of what this is. That's partly strategic. We will be having a meeting very soon with somebody whom we asked to work out a component of the project and this person is not an artist but has good engineering skills. That's exactly why we wanted to work with him. He doesn't understand the global context of why he is making this, what is it about etc. This is deliberately a part of our concept, part of our strategy.
Having collaborators, facilitating participation, what is your role in this?
SH: My role was more or less to think of an orchestrator. Again, MAGMA was a project conducted in top secret, only three people knew what was going to happen and that included the gallery owner who also had to sleep with me at the opening night so of course she had to know this and her husband who runs a lot in the gallery. And my partner at ALBB. This were the only people who knew what was going to happen. Of course I had to set up Sleepers for the following night, so I informed Motoko that I would like her and her partner to sleep just so she could plan and would be free that night. I needed to set up a little bit in advance. But then the way we got the sleepers in was during the opening night when suddenly this audience of a hundred people are realizing what is happening... at that point Motoko who was outside walked around the audience and viewers and approached people.
My first approach was I wanted people who had already been involved in the project. To give them a further opportunity to be involved, because I worked with an architect who did the structural design and the room for me. He imposed his view on me how this room had to look. I actually worked with a big team for the installation, a team of volunteers. A lot of them were my students who had also volunteered to previous projects. That also would be friends, my maid who is excellent to work with. So was this group of people who had already been involved, that was the photographer, another designer who does the interior design. Already there were 20, 30 people who were involved, the gallery assistants for example. So I wanted to open this up to them to be involved on a deeper level with the project. Motoko approached them first and then they responded totally based on their personality. Some just said "no, I can never do this, this is not for me." Other people said "yeah, cool I will do that." And then there were few people in the audience outside and approached Motoko and said "I want to sleep in it, I want to sleep in it!" So she took their names and had these lists growing.
Then in later performances, for example one artist came with hid daughter, an artist who is in that gallery stable, came with his daughter and said "how is this great, ra-ra-ra... it looks so beautiful and I said: "Well, would you two like to participate, would you like to sleep?" And they said "yes!" There was only one or two nights where we had little bit of problems scheduling people in because the show went actually over a long weekend, so people were out of town. So one or two strangers got kind of involved. People I didn't really know and who weren't at all connected to the project. Like a friend of a friend. That was fine. My top priority was to give people who had worked together with me on this project this opportunity and then to sort of open it up from there in the most logical way. To other members of the art community or people who responded to it positively. Basically my role was to explain to them what this entails, what this requires. Setting down the rules that apply. Explaining the risks to them. They had to sign a waiver that said the gallery and the artist had zero responsibility. You are taking this in the full understanding of what it entails if something happen to you etc. Nobody objected to that.
My role was sort of being there on the night, setting them up with their costumes, explaining the system, how it works with the keys, etc. Because they had to let themselves out of the gallery in the morning. How to turn the A/C on and off, these kinds of things. And once briefing them about what they can do in there and what they can't, how to get in and out of the room, because they was a secret door in the room but they had to set it up so that the audience outside cannot see. It is like a self-enclosed space. So they had to be briefed on how to do that. Most people performed fabulously. Some people admittedly had trouble getting sleep. Especially one of the kids, one of the six year old girls was wiggling around a lot for the first half hour until the cough medicine made her sleepy. Her mother drugged her with cough medicine. A lot of people took sleeping pills. Ironically the worst performer was actually a performance artist. That was interesting.
Do you know why your Sleepers participated? Do you know their motivation?
SH: I really don't. I never asked. They never talked about it really in those terms. The kind of emotional response I got from the was like "yeah, this would be fun, this is a good idea, lets try it." There was one woman who slept with her partner and he was the sound artist who was performing on the opening night. She mentioned some reason why she wanted to do this and I could find out for you of you want because I can't remember off hand right now. But others were just like the kind of spontaneous volunteers and in the end there were more volunteers than we could accommodate. Also I should mention there was another factor that we could only have Sleepers that also the gallery felt comfortable with, because the Sleepers had open access to the gallery: computers, records, equipment. There was a certain security issue there. We didn't wanted two total strangers, that would have been unacceptable. There were some sort of constraints like that. To some of these spontaneous volunteers we had to say "no, sorry we got already too many people" which was in fact the case. I think people reacted spontaneously just kind out of this emotional kind of excited response. Not in any kind of rational clear way.
Is this participation-based art something new in Ho Chi Ming and how did the public respond?
SH: It's very new. A project like The Dream Collector curated by Motoko is also totally new here. In fact MAGMA – the overall name of the Sleepers project – was not presented as a ALBB project, but we co-produced the catalogue later. But everything ALBB is trying to do is something new in this context. You have to be quiet careful here because what is new or challenging overseas can sometimes be way too new and challenging here. I can talk about a concrete example of that later. Yes, MAGMA was very new in that it became such a public art project the way it faced right onto the street like glass was a membrane. [ If you like I can also send you the catalogue essays ]. It was very much on display, on view, splayed almost pornographic in a sense... Definitely voyeuristic. People did not have to go into a gallery. They did not have to enter into an unfamiliar zone. Here there is a kind of resistance to go into a gallery because it is so beautiful for lets say lower, middle working class Vietnamese, average people who have no connection to art, that can be a very unfamiliar and threatening environment. So they don't go into galleries.
There is something elitarian about art...
SH: Oh, totally. That's something actually I don't have too much problems with that and we can talk about that if it is relevant. This was not exactly on the street but more or less on the street. The only thing separating the street from the art was the glass. I think it was also really important that it was at night. This caught people who would normally not interact with art. People would drive past on their motorbike, see some red, glowing light, see lots of people hanging around. Vietnamese love spectacles. If there is an accident you get this huge crowd. People just standing around watching. So people would slow down, they would stop, taxis would stop, motorbikes would stop. We actually caused traffic jams. They would get off their motorbikes and come and look. The very intriguing thing about MAGMA was that nothing is happening, it's like a painting, everything is still. Really, nothing is happening. It is like a painting with depth. The performers are doing the most mundane, boring thing to look at which is sleeping. Nothing is going on. But visually somehow you get sucked in to watching this. And even me the artist – there is nothing new for me to see there – I thought up the whole thing. But was standing there for 15 minutes as well and got totally visually connected like sucked in to this thing. You couldn't pull yourself away. A lot of people would stay for quiet some time. Interestingly some people came every night. The building is at the bottom of an apartment block and some of the residents would come down several times during a night in order to come and check what's going on. I had some very devoted audience members who would come every night, either because it was on their way home and they would stop and smoke a cigarette at two a.m. and look at this thing.
Were you always on site and able to attend conversations?
SH: Yes. Because we had a photographer there every night and I was there to at least until midnight, so I was generally there for the first three hours, sometimes I was there until two a.m. Sometimes I also slept there in the gallery, usually because it was too late for me to go home and therefore not safe, or it was raining like crazy, or I had a breakfast date with the sleepers the next morning... What I would do is stand around outside and both to me and the photographer, people would talk to us. Very occasionally we would talk to them. One of the interesting issues that came up was for some local Vietnamese – not as well educated, lower class persons who don't have a clear concept of what art is at all – that many would think that this was some sort of advertising. But they couldn't figure out what was being advertised. We could overhear them talking. Usually first comments were "oh my god, are they alive or dead? Is this real people or not? Are they really sleeping or not?" Those were the three most typical kind of comments.
The other typical thing that we would overhear was that "oh, it is advertising, oh they are advertising, but what are they advertising?" This is where I had a little problem. If you do a lot of research you can understand that it is very difficult for somebody coming from a first world context, and catalyst context to understand the situation here in terms of visual culture. In that advertising has an extremely short history here. This is not a society where you can talk in the post modern way about image saturation. This is not a society that is saturated by images. Advertising has only really being around for the past ten years and so it is very, very new. It looks for the Vietnamese glossy, it looks modern, it looks seductive, so it associates something that looks beautiful presented in some unusual way. It is a very natural way for them to think that must be advertising. So I got to be concerned there because I think as a cultural practitioner who is also interested in culture ideology, breaking into ideology etc, you have a certain responsibility I think as an artist. That was the only point that I intervened.
How did you intervene?
SH: Usually verbally. We actually did have a sign up on the wall that was like a brief statement, but I didn't consider it to be my statement. It explained the thing and I think had the word "installation performance" in there, I can't remember if it had the word "art". People read that but they still it didn't register with them sometimes, so I had to verbally intervene. So usually me and the photographer would subtly, comfortably sort of say, "oh, well this is actually not advertising, this is art." I thought it is very important for me to make that intervention and try to open up something in their mind that something that is visual, that is unusual, that looks good can belong to non-corporate culture. It is very important otherwise you get this kind of total catalyst, almost colonial domination of minds here that's a really dangerous cultural and political situation. This was the only time I imposed my view point. The other conversations I had with people generally, I let them talk about what this was to them or what they felt this was, or what it could mean to them. I never explained what it means to me. I would define things, I would say "yes, this is a performance" or "this is an installation." And they might ask me "what is an installation?" and I would explain in a sort of very generic way. But I let it very, very open. Of course, the death of the author... I mean this is old stuff in the art world but MAGMA was definitely political. I couldn't talk openly about the full political scope of MAGMA. Although, some artists understood it straight away.
What does it make so political?
SH: The fundamental sort of conceptual drive of MAGMA was my thinking about ideology in a generic way. How we willingly allow ourselves to be seduced. Now in a context like Vietnam, boom, what comes to mind and the color is all red... some artists totally understood how on the borders that was, how risky that was. You know there is a censorship process that happens here. They were like amazed and excited and said "how did you manage to do this?" I was very circumspect about not talking too much about that. I had to slightly skew for journal articles here and things like that. I could only really talk about some of the conception pieces...
Now I understand the certain secrecy that surround your projects...
SH: That's part of it. A part of it is also logistical. You can't do a performance like that at MAGMA where the artists in the gallery are sleeping at the opening and tell people in advance. That would kill it. And partly the concept was that of ideology, including the ideologies of the art world. Interestingly the gallery owner had this kind of ideological resistance to this idea and said "oh I couldn't possibly sleep during the opening because what about my buyers, what about my collectors?" I need to be up there schmusing and mingleing. This whole idea of what is an opening, what do you expect. You expect to be intermingleing with the work, you expect the two stars to be there talking about their work, the gallery owner, the artist. You expect to be put in a non-active role as an audience member.
Now very deliberately what was happening in MAGMA which I haven't talked much about yet was that that membrane, that glass was actually continued on a plane across the whole surface of the gallery. So on the left hand side we had the text based information, the title of the show, the dates etc. that was blocking the window. It was making a black plane and you couldn't look into the rest of the gallery in other words. And on the right hand side on the opening night it was closed and normally the place where people get their drinks, where they mingle and talk, was off limits to the audience because we had the sound artist in there performing. Essentially I created this flat plane that pushed the audience on the outside, but which was the street. At the opening people had to be on the street and couldn't access the gallery. Ironically what I did was that I inverted in some sense who is the performer, who is the actor, where is something happening. Because in fact you can argue that what was happening was the people outside that became the actors. And if they self-reflected on their roles, they would realize that they would put in the spotlight.
It was a public performance in that respect?
SH: Yes. On the opening there is this audience who would normally come to consume art. Who were kind of inverted outwards and put into some kind of subconscious performative role themselves. Every night I also considered the viewers that came to look at the work as performers. So that glass was a membrane. Like a kind of border between countries or something and both sides is a country. And on that glass borderline both sides were performing. Every night the hundred people, or two hundred people that came they were also performing at MAGMA. Because if you think about how ideology works, or when we think about who is 'ideologized' we always project this onto the other. We always think, "oh them, the poor victims of ideology!" We very rarely consider to which extend our own thinking is produced by ideology. In viewing these people in the red room sound asleep willingly seduced in this... you have to talk now symbolically or metaphorically this ideological environment that seduces you by its beauty. The outside audience standing on the other bit of that line could – again if I talk metaphorically – project this kind of "oh, poor them!" Whereas in fact it is all of us, right?
What remained, what has been sustained after the Sleepers project closed?
SH: Some of the relationships certainly cemented and are now being developed further. Like I said, many of the Sleepers were people who were already involved. For example the bond with the photographer really deepened. He also performed as a Sleeper. Some of the relationships stayed the same. The other interesting sense of relationship and what evolved was that MAGMA actually turned into a kind of myth, a kind of urban myth to which those performers or contributors collaborated, the whole team of people who were involved. It is out there, it is circulating in society and even for example two nights ago I met people who said "ah, you are the one who did that red room!" This is a very interesting dynamic that came out of it like people who came to see MAGMA because sometimes they read about it in the newspaper, sometimes because people would SMS them. So people would see this thing, SMS their friends and say "you've got to come here, you've got to see this!" So it spread out into the whole of the city as this kind of notion, as this kind of myth.
In a sense – and this is something I was not ready for but I am very interested in as a dynamic – the whole city in some sense became the audience. It spread like a virus and thousands of people who knew about it and people would SMS each other in the morning and say "did you see it last night? – no, no I saw it the night before but let's go again tonight" or whatever. This is the dynamic that came out of MAGMA that I am exploring in my current project is how to engage with the whole city as an audience through creating myths and rumors and viral kind of communication.
How does MAGMA contribute to a better world?
SH: Well, you get into sort of a tricky area here of what is art and what is the purpose of art. On a very kind of mundane level if you bring some kind of delight into somebody's life through art that's probably better than not bringing delight. I actually personally believe that art has no function really beyond its nature as a symbolic act. In my recent catalogue essay I wrote about symbolic ephemera and the uselessness of art. I think art is at its most useful when it is useless. It is about spaces for idleness and imagination. I think every society needs a particular class or particular group whose role it is not to engage in concrete things that are considered of importance for that society, like manufacturing goods or providing for food, constructing housing, or educational infrastructure. But I think there needs to be some group that addresses the not tangible issues, like mind, spirit, imagination, dreaming. I can't theorize this fully because I haven't done total research on how this works and so on. My question always in response to this is sure, art doesn't do much and I don't think it shouldn't do much. But could you a society without it? If you pull up the picture of what a society is then you see the value of this seemingly valueless practice has.
What do you think about art practices that touch more on social issues?
SH: Personally I don't think art can really make that much difference to social change. If you really want to create social change it has to be addressed with much, much stronger political tools which governments have at their disposal. Governments and NGOs. I think art works much more subtly than that. If I want to be provocative I say, if you want social change or a revolution I think a gun works a lot better than art does. That's when I am being my most provocative. In my own personal practice I tried to disengage from myself from dealing too much with concrete realities and working more towards abstractions. Because I thought personally that it was too easy for me to keep dealing with specific realities. In my case, realities were usually history and what happened in history. I am forcing myself to be engaged on a more abstracted level, so that's my sort of own personal direction. But the point that connects with what you just talked about the social element exemplified by the Austrian artist group WochenKlausur that you mentioned... As a curator I have done this more than as an artist. But I would like to do it as an artist more as well. Because I am very interested in collaborating with project partners that have nothing to do with art.
Like for example this project we are planning with this Swiss coffee company. So we are bringing a global commercial player together with a group of artists, together with a community. The artists are a sort of in between, less than a triangle. Of course that company engages with its community in a – as far as I can gage – in a very positive way. But these kinds of unlikely situations and unlikely combinations I do really enjoy. I enjoy them because of the kind of mental spaces they can open up in the minds of all the participants. Obviously the artists sometimes can be very anti-commercial, anti-company by saying these people do not think the same like ourselves. But in fact there is a lot of creativity in commerce, company can be extremely creative in their thinking. And these guys get a lot done on a scale that really impresses me. Corporate minds can be opened up by interacting with artists. In how communities and artists interact there is this whole kind of potential for mental explosions and some new terrain, some new territory that has opened up in my mind through this interaction. That potential I really love both as a curator and as an artist.
Is this art that directly intersects with life?
SH: Yeah, in some ways or perhaps different industries. I do have a bit of a problem with this art and life thing that people often discuss. What I am interested in is for example to present MAGMA in a night club. I am interested in presenting art in context where you don't expect art to happen. In fact you don't necessarily even announces as art. And I think this was very much part of The Dream Collector project. I think that those artists never mentioned that this was an art project and so on.
But getting back to the Sleepers project we are dealing with a gallery.
SH: That edition of MAGMA doesn't fit that description. But probably 50 percent of the people didn't realize that it was art even though it was in a gallery. Like I explained before many thought it was advertising and where I had to intervene. Part of the direction is that I am hitting in this process of evolution in my practice. The project I am working on at the moment definitely is about this interdisciplinary collaboration. It's about doing art projects in public space that are most definitely not announced as art and that perhaps you don't even realize that what you are looking at, but just something uncanny happens. That interests me a lot and MAGMA was maybe one step before that, it is part of an evolution.
If you would begin the Sleeper project again, would you do something differently?
SH: There is an organization in Sendai that wants to present MAGMA in Sendai in one of the Shotengai [shopping arcade] next year. Depending on that particular shotengai, depending on what that local government tolerates, etc. I might have to change certain things. Of course it is very different if you do it as a second version because it has a history because some people are gonna know or read it. I don't think I would change a hell of a lot. Also I am exploring possibilities to do it in New York at the moment. More or less I would do it the same but like I said MAGMA is conceived as a part of a series that mutates. Uses the same materials but mutates. If I felt in Sendai that it would be better to do a second edition of MAGMA in a different way then I night do that but I really can't say until I know much more about the particularities of that project.
You mentioned that some things in Vietnam can be "way too new..."
SH: We have a new program running at the moment, which is bi-monthly video screenings. The first one was last Sunday and we screened not so much video work but it was a conceptual artist from Australia who 'makes' punk bands or rock bands as art projects. In this particular case he presented a DVD of the songs that that band performs. Basically the DVD presented the lyrics of the songs. He took 30 kind of well-known pop songs, changed the lyrics to criticize certain artists or the art world or art education or whatever. I curated this and I was of course worried about how is this going to translate in this context. There is a lot of problems already with language. Certain problems we encountered was that we had to had an educational component, so we had a Flash presentation running that gave people background on these artists like who is On Kawara, Tracey Emin, Jackson Pollock. People if they hadn't prepared themselves they would at least get some input then.
One problem we had was people sitting there not realizing that this was just the preamble and that the real show was coming in 30 minutes. So they couldn't figure out like is this art or what is this, and how come this is so boring? That was one problem. The other problem came when we presented his projects because a lot of Vietnamese don't know these pop songs. Those pop songs originated during the dark communist years or they are too young, so they don't know them. With foreigners of course we could assume that they knew them. But then a lot of people don't know the art world including artists. Most artists here don't know On Kawara, Tracey Emin, what is the Venice Biennale, what is the Basel Art Fair. They just don't know so they don't understand the joke and it's not funny.
Then there is another problem that they don't understand that art can be actually be a highly critical practice. Self-reflective criticism presented in a satyrical way is part of what some artists do. This is definitely the one thing ALBB has done... maybe it was too soon, maybe it was too esoteric. I mean it did succeed the people who loved it loved it. Other people said, yes I didn't know everything what was going on but it was like education, now I know what are some of the issues with those particular artists. Even some artists left because they didn't get it. They didn't understand of what is this, what are we watching here? This band tours through Europe raging audiences response, they love it. This is another example of art that can be an invert practice, because it is about insider's knowledge, you have to have the insider's knowledge in order to understand what's going on in situations like this.
Are you interested in this art that works with specific cultural references?
SH: I think that's fine really because we are entering a very dangerous situation where we say that art must be taken down to the most common denominator. That's dangerous. In MAGMA I was very aware that everyone is going to engage with it in terms of what they can connect to. Some of my students who were assisting me in installing it said "oh, this is a Chinese wedding chamber!" Okay, fine, this is a Chinese wedding chamber. Other people said "this is like an Amsterdam's prostitute's booth." Some people said it is like a chocolate box, some people said it is like a mid summer night's dream... I never thought of a mid summer night's dream. I was very aware that there were different levels of engagement here from what are people familiar with to various levels of abstraction and that was fine in my case. Of course I am most happy if people do get most of the levels. But I am personally not going to reduce my art so that every person in society can understand it because the whole process should be about bringing people up and not stuff down. It should be about raising of consciousness.
Sue Hajdu's practice covers the fields of visual art, writing, curating and education. She holds a Masters of Visual Arts in Photomedia from Sydney College of the Arts, The University of Sydney, and exhibits using a variety of media including photography, installation, video and performance. Based in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) since 2001, she is founding co-director of the artist's initiative, a little blah blah, and full time lecturer in Multimedia at RMIT International University, Vietnam.
Momentarium creates situations where our very presence becomes the catalyst for shifting experiences we can integrate into our lives by fusing reality with co-created artifice.