‘Team Up’: Interview with The Propeller Group
The Propeller Group discusses the advantages of working as a collective
Founded in 2006 by Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam and Matt Lucero, The Propeller Group is an art collective based in Ho Chi Minh who makes large-scale, collaborative projects. From visionary works that re-brand the nation to interventions at artist villages, their work in the past twelve years has breached the extensive international network of cultural production to considerable success.
It is thus not surprising that they have been featured and commissioned to exhibit in internationally renowned museums and festivals. Amongst these include the Guggenheim Museum (2011 – 2012), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012), Los Angeles Biennial (2012), and the 56th Venice Biennale (2015). Their current shows span across two distant continents: a solo exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art and a group exhibition as part of ‘Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia” in the Singapore Art Museum, both on show till March 2018.
What makes their works particularly intriguing is how they are borne out of paradoxes. Simultaneously provocative and subtle, their works seek to challenge prevailing ideological systems by adopting the language of the institutions that dominate the production of culture and economy. Confronting their aversion towards the medium of advertising, they wield its strategies to reach the mass consciousness in ways that traditional art forms cannot.
At the heart of this complex maneuvering lies the simple trajectory towards free communication of art. Here, art and pedestrian life are not mutually exclusive forms to be experienced, and the public space is the art space.
ART REPUBLIK speaks with the collective to learn more about how mass media and their collaborative efforts both drive their work, and projects audiences can expect from them in the near future.
What are the origins of the collective?
There are actually multiple origins to the collective, but the point in the narrative where the different trajectories collide and where different elements begin to concretise to create the collective happened around 2006. Two artists, Phunam and Tuan, who would later be members of the group, were shooting a documentary film about the first generation of graffiti artists in Vietnam. They were quickly made to realise that it was illegal to film in public without permission. After some research they discovered that the only way to get proper licensing was to either go through a governmental organisation, which as one can imagine would be extremely tedious and difficult, or the other option would be to go through a commercial film production company.
The most obvious choice then, was to register as a legitimate “film production company”. Shortly after the registration process was initiated, we, who were now several artists who had background working in different mediums, quickly discovered that to register as an “advertising company” would give us more access to public space than just being able to ask for permission to film in public. For instance, advertisers would be able to rent advertising space in public, organise large-scale public events, buy media on television and radio etc. This was at a time when large global advertising agencies were coming into the country following and serving large product brands. The country was giving benefits to advertisers for that reason. We jumped on the bandwagon. So the group, who had always had a bit of enmity towards advertisers, became an advertising company.
Why the name ‘The Propeller Group’?
When it came to the point to fill out the forms for starting an advertising company, we realised that we had not considered the most important part of an advertising company: brand identity.
So in the midst of our confusion combined with being caught off-guard, the most obvious thing to do was to ask the internet gods. We typed in a few key words, like “art collective”, “advertising”, “public art”, “public relations”, “film production”, “branding”, “marketing”, “propaganda” etc. and the company name that kept coming up was “The Propeller Group”. There were film production companies, advertising companies, PR firms, marketing groups, and even an art collective in the 70s called The Propeller Group. We felt that there was a sort of magic in being able to take part in the continuation of this “brand”. The magic maybe was part and partial in the ability to camouflage ourselves, especially while working in a context like Vietnam, in this lineage known as “The Propeller Group” that has moved through time and space.
You have mentioned that the group will be transiting from one with fixed membership to one with a more fluid platform. How might this possibly impact the idea of The Propeller Group as a “brand”?
Actually, the collective was always imagined as an organic structure for which multiple collaborative practices could attach themselves to and was hence designed as a malleable structure with revolving membership. An organism of collaboration so to speak. We looked at different models of collective production and collectivity ranging from other art collectives past and present, film crew structures, graffiti art crews, ad agencies etc. A group that is attached to specific membership has a higher chance of reaching an end point.
At the same time, the intention to participate in a collective was to be able to operate anonymously, to be able to think beyond our own “individual” branding. This also allowed us a space in which the idea and nature of “branding” could be put into question, challenged, taken apart, built back up and maybe re-invented. If we are lucky, and these ideas of collectivity and branding work in the way we imagined, The Propeller Group will last over a hundred years and would have benefited from the participation of hundreds of artists and cultural producers.
The members of your collective also work independently, for example with Tuan’s current solo exhibition, ‘Empty Forest’, which runs presently at The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Vietnam. Tell us more about how the collective has served as a conceptual platform or has influenced your individual work.
Each member, past and present have always had a practice outside of the collective. We believe that a collective should benefit the individuals working within the collective as much as the individual should benefit the collective, which is also to say that one member should be able to help the other members of the group in their own artistic growth. The transfer of ideas and resources and energies within this network should be a symbiotic relationship. The roundtable in the collective becomes the plate onto which everyone contributes ideas. That contribution of ideas is a process that affects each individual that has come to that roundtable.
Every idea thrown onto that table then belongs to the collective, but there’s no doubt that each individual sitting at that table has learned something new in that process. That might be with regards to information and knowledge, but it might also be a new way of seeing things that was catalysed in the process of brainstorming with a group.
Your collective has successfully created many large-scale projects over the years, while inviting a myriad of other collaborators to work with you. Why large-scale works? Is it because the direction of your work requires more accessibility to the public gaze, or is it a resulting culmination of the complex and extensive ideas that go into your projects?
The obvious advantage of working in a collective setting is that a collective practice can be scaled up quite easily simply because a number of different individuals can bring unique skill sets to the table. The conceptual ambition of the ideas must be scaled up as well. We believe this is inherent in the desire to want to work collectively; otherwise one can remain a solo artist and make studio work.
Many of us grew up immersed in graffiti culture and perhaps the idea of uniting individual muralists to make larger “productions” has influenced how we’ve thought as an art collective approaching conceptual work. It was also a feeling that at that specific time in that very specific context— this being Saigon in the mid-2000’s— we found the idea of the “public” and formations of “media space” were very complex spaces that contained the potential to allow us to see things differently. After all, we formed out of a need to address the public space and media. The results of our reaction to form an advertising agency, whether it was a fully conscious decision at the time, were an important aspect of our conceptual trajectory. It was part of the practice.
Your art tends to be quite provocative in nature, from highlighting the paradoxical nature of a Communist country with capitalist inclinations in ‘TVCC’ (2011), to testing the boundaries of public spaces by means of public intervention in ‘Temporary Public Gallery’ (2010). Were there any struggles or difficulties in the process of executing these projects?
Any project worth producing will be a difficult project to realise. Convincing people of what we believe to be a significant conceptual project has always been the most difficult part of any project. Our process tends to bring in people from various other practices that do not necessarily think about form and function the same way we do. So getting our heads to think in similar wavelengths has always been the biggest challenge in realizing any project.
A dedication to creating social and political awareness, especially in Vietnam, seems to be the key trajectory of your collective’s works, particularly in ‘Viet Nam the World Tour’ (2010) and the graffiti-based projects, such as ‘Spray it, Don’t say it’ (2006). What kind of public response and conversation does your work normally incite?
This has always been the most difficult question to answer. We have never really been able to get a grasp on the public response to our work. Maybe we can begin by saying that our inclination to raise awareness was never targeted only towards a Vietnamese audience. The group rarely exhibits in Vietnam.
It appears that most of your works, such as ‘TVCC’ (2012) and ‘Viet Nam the World Tour’ (2010) also have a specific focus in critiquing advertising and branding by adopting the same mass communication platforms utilised by said advertising agents. How has that helped you in critically examining national cultural production?
There is a way that advertising and its methodologies, strategies, and ability to permeate and intrude into the public psyche en masse as well as at the individual level that perplexes and disgusts us. The development of advertising and the evolution of communism actually have many moments of overlap. Propaganda and its strategies like agitprop, have given way to modern advertising strategies. All of this to say that the production, or possibly even the fabrication, of a national identity, appropriates greatly from advertising and agitprop. Political figures as well as governments hire influential advertisers to create their image. National cultural production is based on these very same principles. Those mass communication platforms that you mention are now largely controlled by big and powerful companies looking to increase profit. The political message is a message that was designed to profit somebody who is probably already extremely wealthy.
As a contrast to the focus on advertising and image in some of your works, your recent films, ‘The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music’ (2014) and ‘The Guerrillas of Cu Chi’ (2012) seem to traverse both the spheres of documentation and intervention. Is there perhaps an archival and documentation aspect to your work as well?
We would like to believe that most of our projects have an underlying element of intervention. Intervention into our understanding of the archive and the document is a form of reflection we often implement in our works.
‘The Living Need Light’ was an exploration and an homage not only to the labourers that make a living helping families celebrate life at the moment of death, but also to the transvestite and transgender communities that use that particular “public space” that opens up during the traditional funeral ceremony as a means of expression and resistance. We felt that the film, something that could be seen as “document” had to intervene upon itself. As such, we worked alongside the performers to create moments that challenged its form as a documentary, to bring in elements that leaned towards the fictitious and the super-real to keep this film operating within the space of resistance. That is to say that it must resist being either read as purely a document or purely as fiction. It must exist in a similar liminal space that the characters in the film exist in.
How do you think the discourses and critiques present in your works might help in illuminating the rest of the contemporary Southeast Asian art scene?
It is a leap for us to think that we might have a hand in illuminating the rest of the contemporary art scene in Southeast Asia. That sounds like quite a humongous task. At the very most, we might have captured a global audience’s attention towards a very, very small part of Southeast Asia, namely Vietnam.
What is in the pipeline for the collective in 2018 and beyond?
We are finishing off an almost two-year-long travelling survey exhibition of our work in the U.S. The exhibition began at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and will be wrapping up at the San Jose Museum of Art in California in the spring of 2018 with a big celebration of a large public mural project made with a long-time collaborator named El Mac. We are also working to finish a film installation that we shot years ago.
More information at the-propeller-group.com.
This article was written for AR18.