It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
In this interview with contemporary artist, UNC professor, and recent Guggenheim fellowship recipient Hong-An Truong, she describes art practice as a site and form of political intervention.
Scalawag: While your body of work encompasses a wide array of aesthetic qualities and varied mediums—sculpture, installation, video, performance—a consistent theme in your work seems to be collaboration, with many of your pieces working actively in conversation with other artists or performed with and alongside others. What drives you towards a collective art practice?
Hồng-Ân Trương: I can likely trace my origins of working collaboratively with others to my early twenties, right after I finished my undergraduate degree and before I could ever claim to be an artist. I was working at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, and my second position there was working with community based documentary programs. Most of the programs were working with kids, and one of them was called Youth Document Durham. I taught middle school and high school kids how to use audio and photography to create narratives about their lives and the things that were important to them. I worked with many of these kids over the course of several years, and we eventually started a radio program out of the Duke radio station, and also began inserting ourselves into on-the-ground anti-racism and anti-war work. This was in the early 2000s, so we participated in a lot of marches and rallies against the war in Iraq and against racism directed towards kids of color and Muslims.
Because my activism—which in so many ways is grounded upon collaboration and collective work—preceded my own art practice, I think that I gravitated towards working collaboratively when I began to pursue my work more seriously. I went to graduate school to try to figure it out actually, to figure out how to merge my (at the time) individual photography practice with my direct political work. It didn't coalesce in graduate school, but it grew and started to take shape after that, when I started working with my long-time collaborator, Hương Ngô. We decided to work on a project together, bringing each of our own strengths to a project that included video and performance. We have since collaborated on many different projects, and I've collaborated with my partner Dwayne Dixon on a video, as well as with groups of college students and high school students. And now I'm working with activists and students on a socially-based art project as part of a loose, leaderless collective that has been doing anti-racist work around Silent Sam, police brutality, and white supremacy on UNC's campus, where I teach.
So I think that collaboration and collectivity are at the foundation of the experiences that allowed me to learn and grow so much as an activist and teacher when I was younger. It's important to me on a few different levels. One is that without a doubt I often make the best work when I'm working with someone else because if it's a positive collaboration, it is a process that forces you to confront your weaknesses and make decisions together, which means to move more thoughtfully and with less ego. Secondly, I'm interested in work that structurally has a social dimension to it. By that I mean that the process and or engagement is a part of the work, because this is the generative, political dimension to work. Not all my work is like this, but I am compelled to work on projects where it's not just the subject matter that is political, but also that through the aesthetics, the work can also be process-based and participatory. And finally, it is so much more fun to work with other people! I'd much rather struggle with others than struggle by myself, toiling away in my studio figuring out this thing or that thing. Working with others holds you accountable, and is so much more enjoyable!
Scalawag: For a lot of people living in the U.S, even in progressive circles, it remains challenging to see the connections drawn, both material and symbolic, between U.S. wars abroad, military interventionism, and state violence here. In some of your pieces, like From a Hot Border (2001), how do you attempt to overcome some of these gaps and silences towards tethering peoples struggling for self-determination in the U.S. South with a Global South?
Hồng-Ân Trương: My approach has always been one that attempts to create narratives and put seemingly disparate things in tension with each other in order to question and call attention to those gaps and silences. So for example, in that really early work you mention, From a Hot Border (2001), it was as simple as juxtaposing Time and Life magazine images and headlines featuring stories about the American invasion of Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s with photographs from my family's photographs from the first few years of our lives as refugees in the U.S. It was a simple gesture to just say, look, these two things totally create cognitive dissonance because of the narratives that have been sedimented through institutional racism in American popular culture and the media. This continues to be something that I am still addressing in my work. One project I have been working on for the last year and that I just received support from the Guggenheim Foundation through their fellowship program, is called We Are Beside Ourselves. I'm using photography, video, sound, and sculpture to think about the War in Vietnam within a broader context of third world liberation and the civil rights movement, especially in relationship to the Asian American power movement. The project will make linkages between histories and moments in time that are not typically narrated together in order to reflect on our current political climate and racial tensions. It's a sisyphean task to try to shift perceptions of what it means to be Asian American and what it means in the U.S. South, and what our current struggles look like, but it's so important.
Scalawag: You've been an art instructor at UNC-Chapel Hill for many years, at a time where the crisis of challenging white supremacist monumentation, from Silent Sam to Carr Hall, has reached a flash point. Do you incorporate some of these questions and debates on resistance and monumentation into your course work? Do you see artists as having a key role in interventions around monumentation and memorialization?
Hồng-Ân Trương: Definitely. I think it is the responsibility of faculty to engage students in these critical conversations that are crucial to building the campus community that we want. And it doesn't matter what you teach. We can't teach in a vacuum. These things are all around us, we can't ignore it. This is the kind of disengagement and alienation induced by neo-liberal universities dominated by the logic of consumer capitalism. So we have to engage with it in the classroom. I teach video, and half of what I need to teach is purely technical, and the other half is visual literacy but also art history. So sometimes it flows really easily into what I'm teaching, but other times it does not. I try to keep a practice of checking in with students at the beginning of class, of just being like, hey, how is everyone doing, what's on your mind? Did you all read that article in the Daily Tar Heel (the school paper) this morning? Or, was anyone at the Silent Sam protest on Monday? Or I make announcements about actions and events on campus, and use that as a way to have some dialogue about it.
And absolutely artists have a role in this work! Everyone does, of course, but the emergence of this debate over monuments is indicative of a sea change in which artists are perfectly situated to play a key role. We need new visual languages, we need new landscapes, we need to create new knowledge(s) that challenge racist narratives and white supremacy while at the same time imagining the future we want and can have. So while the monuments come down, what–if anything–do we build in their places? These are conversations that artists need to be a part of. But I also strongly believe that we are also at a moment where it's not just about representation, this is a battle that is also very much about bodies on the ground. So I think that artists need to make that leap from making work about these ideas, to showing up, being present.
Scalawag: What are some of your current creative projects? Anything our readers should be on the lookout for?
Hồng-Ân Trương: I just made a single channel video with my colleague and friend, Lien Truong, which is on view right now at Artspace in Raleigh. I also am going to be working on a new project for a group show at 12 Gates Arts in Philadelphia, called Clear-Hold-Build, which will explore the trauma of global counterinsurgency warfare. A project with Hương Ngô will also be included in a couple of group shows opening up this summer and fall, one at The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., and one at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.