Sung Tieu’s recent works reveal the potential of individual reflection in times of global crisis.
Sound is a central element in the spatial installations of Sung Tieu. In recent years, the artist has made several works based on her research on »Ghost Tape No. 10«, a sonic weapon developed by the US Army during the Vietnamese American War. With exhibitions such as »In Cold Print« and »What is your |x|?« (both in 2020), she continues her investigation into the psychological dimensions of warfare while bringing notions of the inner voice closer into focus.
Sung Tieu and June Drevet started a written conversation on account of the artist’s contribution to transmediale 2021–22 (entitled »for refusal« and curated by Nora O Muchú), where Tieu is currently showing the video »Memory Dispute (2017)«. Curatorially, Rendering Refusal, the transmediale exhibition format, takes as its point of departure the state of crisis of the suppressive status quo. This is a crisis of Western narratives, historiography, and knowledge production.
Making imperialist violence visible and unlearning it appears more present than ever. Can refusal be a means of change or a means to make denied histories and their subjects visible?
What is unique about this year’s transmediale is not only its thematic choice and the festival’s format as a permanent exhibition, but also its unequivocal need to adjust to the restrictions caused by the pandemic. The act of refusal, whether voluntary or involuntary, is something we need to engage with and this year’s festival programme brings to light how such acts can be practiced to generative ends. Nora O Muchú speaks about the »dual nature« of refusal, which has the capacity to host and engage with polarizing political spectrums and artistic practices. To me, the exhibition widens our range of vision via its refusal to conform to purely hegemonic forms of knowledge production and its reliance on dominant histories and factual evidence. Instead, it proposes more fictitious and more speculative narratives, it allows a sort of visual unlearning to take place, an undoing of historical time.
So what remains if one wants to rethink history and its evidence?
ST: We probably need to rethink conceptions of time altogether. Our idea of time as being something linear, as constantly slipping away and running out, should perhaps be replaced by a more multifaceted conception of time and space, as something that is polycentric, cyclical, and recurring. Perhaps time could resurface, discontinue, and change, the same way memories do. In today’s age, we probably think too little about the harm of overproduction and overconsumption. Perhaps the cult of action should be replaced by moments of quiet contemplation and doubt.
I totally agree. In the arts, these alternative strategies towards normative notions of truth and history are always being continuously reformulated. Which strategy do you follow within your practice?
I try not to orientate my interests and concerns on these dominant histories and truths too much. It takes active effort to search for and excavate disregarded narratives. What I come to enjoy is researching in specific archives and analysing documents in order, on the one hand, to question historical evidence and, on the other, to dig for other stories and less visible strings of thought. I suppose precision and a sharp focus on specific information can provide generative moments of insight. During the last months I have been looking into the German Federal Archives, more specifically into governmental recruitment agreements and contracts between the GDR and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, in order to understand the rights and restrictions of Vietnamese contract labourers who came to East Germany starting in the 1980s.
In »Memory Dispute«, which is on view at »Rendering Refusal«, we see an old man at his house in a remote location in the tropical forest of Central Vietnam, an area that was heavily napalmed during the Vietnam War. This film sequence is contrasted with a second sequence showing a naked torso being smeared with an acidic liquid, as is commonly used in contemporary Vietnam to whiten the skin. To these images you added black screens with poetic lines: »Coral sea / as rolling thunder / a naked mountain / on a freedom train / in rustic dust / memory dispute.« How do you situate the poem?
The words I chose for the poem are partly based on military operations the U.S. executed in Vietnam. I thought it was so striking to call a coordinated bombing operation »Freedom Train« or an air offensive »Rolling Thunder.« These poetic sounding phrases mask horrid actions while romanticising nature and notions of freedom in ways that I find disconcerting. In their wording they deny acknowledging certain realities and sufferings as such. Within my video I was intrigued to intersperse this idyllic looking footage of a regrown jungle, once attacked by napalm and Agent Orange, with these phrases from the poem. Their words hopefully can allude to the friction and violence that once took place in Bạch Mã, near Huế.
To your extensive research process in various archives: you involve the senses as elements of perception and memory into your installations. How do you encounter memories or how do they encounter you?
That is a very good question. I wish I could tell you how my memories encounter me. I thought today that parts of my work deal with a constant reworking of subconscious thoughts and »traumas« (for lack of a better word). Depending on the project I am working on, I am predominantly interested in two things: The archival research, the information and themes I want to address, and, in equal parts, there is a side of me that is simply concerned with questions surrounding Art with a capital »A.« I love cultural history and I relish thinking through how our senses have always been influenced by the culture and experiences we are exposed to.
Maybe one of your strategies for reworking these subconscious thoughts is expressed in the »phonetic substance« of your installations. Tina Campt uses this term to refer to a sound that is inherent to an image: »Our perception of images is inseparable from other sensory encounters, and is indelibly shaped and determined by modalities of apprehension often seen as subordinate or supplemental to vision.« Are there certain affects, touches, or reactions you want to achieve through sound?
In Cold Print (2020) takes as its point of departure the occurrence of the »Havana Syndrome,« a supposed sonic attack from 2016. I was predominantly intrigued by the potential psychological effects and affects of sound. What is so curious about the incident is that supposedly the »Havana Syndrome,« which manifested in various physical disorders, was caused by an unknown sound source, one that the victims couldn’t identify for certain. Even the sonic nature of the attack itself, as to what was actually heard, remains speculative until today. And yet, it has caused real injury to the victims, who were U.S. and Canadian Embassy staff members stationed in Cuba. Within my exhibition I speculate on whether the »syndrome« was in part caused by a mass hysteria surrounding the fear that such an »inaudible« sonic weapon could cause physical and mental harm. So what I did is expose myself to the reconstruction of the sonic attack while recording my brain activity under an EEG and MRI scanner. I then took the information of my brain waves and translated that back into sound waves. This is what you hear in the exhibition. Affect is therefore very much an integral part of the show: my reaction to the construction of the sonic attack and the viewers impression of my reaction.
Your conceptual twist is also quite thrilling, namely to make the exhibition experienceable in two iterations. You had it rebuilt halfway through the duration of the exhibition, so that a new spatial experience was created. In doing so, you again suggested the possibility of multi-perspectivity. How does this relate to re-telling or re-shaping histories in your practice?
We intentionally didn’t publicly announce the reconfiguration of the exhibition, which involved changing the content on the news screens and changing the position of the fence and fabric sculptures within the show. I was curious to observe how different audiences are created by this split, how people leave the exhibition with totally different information, though equally accurate to my research. Looking back, I would’ve loved to know what would have happened if I released the second iteration first. I wonder how that would have changed the narrative. The two iterations are also mirrored in the way I conceived the sound element as well. There is a frequency change half way through the sound piece. The 31:00 min. audio work consists of two 15:30 min. identical parts that are repeated in different frequencies. Yet, the two parts sound really unique and different from one another; you wouldn’t guess that they have the same composition. So the sound work encapsulates this multi-perspectivity and that is later mirrored in the textual content on the news screens.
In your most recent exhibition What is your |x|? (2020), you primarily focus on the inner voice: You exhibited your own astrological birth chart next to eight texts that you silkscreened on steel doors. These texts come from unknown authors and address unknown readers and are based on C.G. Jung’s eight personality types. They trigger a reflection on personal development—»What would have happened if…?«—and they are thus your own inner voice. Where does your interest in engaging this (personal) debate come from? Are you suggesting the possibility of regeneration?
For »What is your |x|?« I was predominantly driven by the challenge of whether I could capture the various psychological states I found myself in during the last year. I went through a lot of changes at this time, so I decided that I really wanted to make my inner voice audible and readable, foremost to myself. The idea to juxtapose my birth chart from 1987 in Hải Dương with one from 2020, also taken from my hometown, was a way to ask: »What would have happened if I had stayed in Vietnam?« But this question could equally be applied to another question: »How would my life be different if I had a different internal voice and belief system about myself?« I really wanted to capture the various internal monologues I had and the format and stylistic conventions of horoscopes became increasingly relevant to me. These types of astrological readings, what Adorno deemed »pseudo-rational,« have no particular author and yet are extremely authoritative; they supposedly know more about you than you could ever know about yourself. I was deeply intrigued and troubled by the proximity of my astrologer’s voice to my equally commanding inner voice and how these two forms of indoctrination guide my decision making—whether I approve of it or not.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, transmediale will take place as a year-long festival. The exhibition Rendering Refusal at Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien runs until 28 March. The film programme remote. response. request. was conceived for the period April to June and shows a series of commissioned projects.