The Propeller Group: We Are Restless, But We Will Not Rest (Even After Death)

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The Propeller Group: We Are Restless, But We Will Not Rest (Even After Death)

By Karen Fiss February 13, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


For the past ten years, The Propeller Group has interrogated and intentionally disrupted the space between what is defined as the Global North and the Global South, global commerce and global culture, communism and capitalism, and fine art and popular media. Its three members, Phunam, Matt Lucero, and Tuan Andrew Nguyen, have their roots in the ethos of graffiti and hip-hop, though their artistic practice is omnivorous, incorporating a wide range of media and collaborators from across the globe. The exhibition currently on view at the San Jose Museum of Art is the first attempt at a survey of The Propeller Group’s multidisciplinary practice (organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston, and the Phoenix Art Museum) and showcases seven of their most recent projects. Each piece is so comprehensively and tightly conceived, it feels as if the show curated itself. Despite being deeply conceptual, the works require little external explanation. That’s not to say that the artworks are simply clever conceits. Rather, the videos and films take time to unfold, inviting us at disparate moments to inhabit uncanny psychological and cultural spaces.1

The Propeller Group functioned in their earlier years as both an artist collective and a commercial production company and became well versed in the power of branding. In 2015, we sat down in their Sai Gon studio and discussed our shared aversion to the widespread practice of nation branding, whereby countries employ branding experts to leverage their assets through unified messaging campaigns, which presumably distill a country’s “essence” in terms of its sense of place, culture, and national character. All of us understood that this branding mentality applies to the international art market and exhibition circuit as well, influencing how cultures consume and are consumed. Business and political leaders hail nation branding as one of the most powerful tools for economic advancement, particularly for developing countries, which compete on the global stage for foreign investment, tourism, and trade opportunities.

El Mac in collaboration with The Propeller Group. Viet Nam The World Tour (VNTWT): Sophie Holding the World Together, 2017. Commissioned by San Jose Museum of Art in partnership with Empire Seven Studios, the Children’s Discovery Museum, San Jose.

A project started in 2010, Viet Nam: The World Tour (VNTWT) (2010–present), took the form of what The Propeller Group called a “rogue anti-nation rebranding campaign.” Drawing upon an international network of graffiti artists, b-boys, and other cultural producers from cities including Los Angeles, Seoul, Paris, Kabul, and most recently San Jose (with a permanent mural by the Group’s longtime collaborator El Mac), the project created a global online movement to problematize worn notions of national identity that still reek of empire. Their mobilization of global youth stands in sharp contrast to the staid exoticism of Vietnam’s de facto nation brand, which continues to rely on lotus blossoms, women in Áo dài, and, most significantly, the legacy of the American/Vietnam War.

The Propeller Group presented their idea for another branding campaign during a memorable performance in 2013 at a symposium organized in conjunction with No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia, the inaugural exhibit for the Guggenheim Museum’s UBS MAP Global Art Initiative. At the exhibition’s press opening, a representative for the Swiss bank explained baldly that the Guggenheim project focused on “dynamic regions where UBS has significant interests,” and where they would like to “influence some of the most important growth markets through the support of contemporary art.”2 When The Propeller Group was first invited to participate in No Country, they suggested that their artistic contribution take the form of a branding campaign for the MAP Initiative, but the museum rejected the idea. They then used the occasion of the symposium to presumably persuade the museum to reconsider their original pitch. They explained: “We would like to present to you today a concept for the Guggenheim’s new series of exhibitions, a series that specifically challenges the Western-centric view of the art world” (a statement followed by laughter from the audience). With feigned earnestness, they continued: “Curatorial practice seems very similar to the practice of creating and controlling public image… It’s like nation branding. What does it mean to brand or rebrand something...in a project like this one that is all about national image in a global context? We all know that governments now hire global ad firms to rebrand their images. It happens all the time. We all know that image is capital, right?”3

Phunam then pulled out a guitar and the group performed a rather lackluster rendition of Devo’s “Mongoloid,” a 1978 song they credit as a pivotal moment in their “journey to rediscover the things that unify us all.” Insinuating a link between racist and outdated anthropological categorizations and geographic surveys of artists from regions outside Europe and North America, The Propeller Group proposed “The Axe Fight” as the perfect title for the museum’s global initiative: “a metaphor for the struggle between East and West, the Global South and the Global North…between our pasts, our present, and our future.” They “stole” the tagline “We won’t rest” from the UBS website and added “because we are restless” to convey “determination and momentum.” (Why not make use of the existing UBS brand equity?)4 Their pitch concluded with a mock-up of a giant axe piercing the roof of the Guggenheim’s iconic building, a perfect illustration of their brand concept.

The Propeller Group. The Axe Fight, 2013; mock-up of proposed Guggenheim Museum rebranding campaign for its UBS MAP Global Art Initiative, presented at the symposium No Country: Regarding South and Southeast Asia Part II held at Queens Museum of Art, April 18, 2013.

What becomes evident during the performance is that the title “The Axe Fight” also deliberately evokes the infamous 1975 ethnographic film, The Ax Fight, thereby cementing the group’s critique of the Guggenheim’s neo-imperialist impulse to explore purportedly undiscovered artistic territories. In the exhibition catalog, Tuan suggests that this performance “was the closest they came to a public statement of intent” and to penning a “manifesto.” (Other attempts involved a European PR firm and a fortune teller.) While clearly facetious, the desire to axe the Guggenheim’s brand—to challenge the status quo of center and periphery—is utterly resolute. No matter how many exhibitions include artists from outside traditional Western art centers, the persistence of geographic/ethnic/racial framing demonstrates the legacy of the ethnographic gaze and just how far we are from decolonizing museums and the art market they serve to prop up. The Propeller Group has consistently challenged the cultural and ideological space defined as the “Global South,” and state they would like to be rid of the “Global North” concept entirely. They know these monikers to be fiction: a strategy of maintaining dominance, and an attempt to freeze time and history for those living beyond or in-between these self-defined borders.

There’s a coda to The Propeller Group’s performance at the 2013 symposium, another layer to peel away. At the end of their presentation, an audience member stood up and accused the collective of criticizing a show that they nevertheless chose to participate in. She asserted: “This exhibition still exoticizes that part of the world… I’m someone who has lived in Vietnam before, and I still walked out seeing Buddhism and Communism stuck together with a little bit of rice paste.” In fact planted by the artists, her critique appeared to reference their Television Commercial for Communism (2011). This brilliantly provocative work—which also takes the form of a “rebrand” campaign—emerged from The Propeller Group’s business relationship with the Vietnamese branch of the global advertising agency TBWA, with whom they shared clients.5 The Propeller Group commissioned TBWA to give the ideology a contemporary facelift, with a logo composed of smiles and a one-minute ad, “This Is the New Communism” (taglines: “Everyone’s Equal,” “Everyone’s Welcome”). The multi-channel video installation, included in the San Jose exhibit, documents the brainstorming sessions of TBWA’s creative team as they tackled the assignment, struggling along the way with the ideals and realities of community, capitalism, and good governance.

By staging the accusation of complicity from a supposedly disgruntled audience member, The Propeller Group is laying claim to a compromised space it perennially occupies out of necessity: an uncomfortable, liminal space from which to create disorder and stage subterfuge. They said it best in conversation with curator Zoe Butt: “We like to let ourselves get ingested into the bellies of big social beasts… We feel that true criticality is from the change that can happen from the insides of a system, and not from the analytical discourse from external positions.”6 This is true as much for their firsthand experience working in commercial media as it is in being called upon to “represent” or “translate” contemporary Vietnam into a lingua franca understood by Chelsea galleries and international biennials.

The Living Need Light, the Dead Need Music (2014) also explores the potential of existing deliberately in between, creating “fissures, forms, and passages where they might not have existed previously.”7 In this 20-minute film, The Propeller Group bring all the cinematic seductiveness of a music video to the longstanding tradition of funeral processions and performance in South Vietnam, combining documentary footage with vibrantly staged sequences of magical realism. When I spoke with the group after the film premiered at Prospect 3 in New Orleans, Tuan referred to what he termed a “schizophrenia of positionality.” He said, “We were really thinking from the get-go about eliminating the Global North altogether in the equation.”8 What they wanted was a direct and intimate line of communication between the South and the South—between southern Vietnam and New Orleans—to explore a sense of connectedness in ritual, music, swampy landscapes, and the shared burden of a rampant tourist industry.

The Propeller Group regards Vietnamese funeral processions as inherently political. Moving between private and public spaces, their spirituality stands in resistance to the hard materialism of authoritarian Communism. (They explained to me that even horror films were once banned by the government because they depicted ghosts or spirits.) But there is something bigger and more deeply personal at stake in this film as well. The collective was contemplating its own mortality, at least in the form it had taken during its ten years of existence. The catalog—marking this first survey exhibition—appropriately opens with their obituary. Written by Tuan, it pays tribute to their journey together and looks towards the promise of reincarnation. Phunam worked closely with an astrologer to determine a rebirth date ensuring their “extreme success,” and Matt closes out the catalog with a film script for their sunrise reincarnation ceremony, complete with stage directions, title cards, and camera cues. Một Hai Ba Yô! In dialogue with their ancestors, they are each now reimagining a next iteration. Knowing these extraordinary artists, they won’t rest, even in the afterlife.

The Propeller Group is on view at the San Jose Museum of Art through March 25, 2018.

Notes

  1. Tuan writes in his opening essay for the exhibition catalog that their themes and narratives fold together like origami, “weaving one set of propositions through other planes of conjectures.” Tuan Andrew Nguyen, “The Mythology of Dying,” in The Propeller Group, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and D.A.P., 2016. Note: Don’t miss the catalog—it’s as much artist book as curatorial survey.
  2. The Guggenheim planned a series of three exhibitions for the global art program—the two shows that followed No Country focused on Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa, respectively. Regarding UBS’s interest in funding the initiative, read: Ben Davis, “How Did the Guggenheim's MAP Global Art Show Get So Lost? Blame the Bankers,” Blouin Art Info, March 1, 2013). In honor of their support of the MAP Initiative, UBS won the 2016 European Cultural Investor award, as well as the AURICA, “the most important award in the culture business,” bestowed for “representing culture services, investors, and tourism regions from all over Europe.” The UBS website proclaims: “This is exactly what our engagement is all about: catalyzing creative exchange beyond boundaries.”
  3. The Propeller Group’s performance was part of the symposium No Country: Regarding South and Southeast Asia, organized in conjunction with the Guggenheim exhibition. The event took place at the Queens Museum of Art on April 18, 2013.
  4. All of the above quotes are from the performance by Propeller Group members at the Queens Museum, New York, April 18, 2013.
  5. TBWA is known for clients such as Apple, Gatorade, and McDonald’s. They have also evidently trademarked “Disruption”—their website notes that TBWA and Disruption are registered trademarks of TBWA. They boast: “We are not a traditional ad agency network —we are a radically open creative collective… We live and breathe Disruption®, and for more than two decades that's been the secret to our clients' unprecedented success."
  6. ICI Dispatch, May 13, 2010.
  7. Tuan Andrew Nguyen, “The Mythology of Dying,” in The Propeller Group, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and D.A.P., 2016.
  8. From a conversation between Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Matt Lucero, and Phunam and the author in Sai Gon on January 29, 2015.

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