Tuan Andrew Nguyen
October 19, 2020
Tuan Andrew Nguyen has in recent years emerged as a maker of hybrid films that conjure national memories of displacement like magic spells, their layered narratives exerting a mesmeric pull on characters and viewers alike. The artist’s latest work, Crimes of Solidarity, debuted earlier this month in Marseille as part of the nomadic Manifesta biennial, which recently concluded a staggered six-week opening across as many landmark venues (all installations will remain on view through November 29). Produced remotely in collaboration with asylum-seekers who founded the city’s Squat Saint-Just, Crimes of Solidarity is representative of Manifesta 13’s renewed community-centered approach, one to which the Saigon-based artist has long adhered in his individual practice and as a cofounder of The Propeller Group. Below, Nguyen reflects on his Manifesta commission: a live performance and video that, through scripted and (mis)remembered speech, dramatizes ethical frictions inherent to storytelling, documentation, and hospitality.
“CRIMES OF SOLIDARITY” is a phrase used by activists to refer to laws in France criminalizing civilian acts that assist migrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers denied basic rights. Around half of the country’s asylum-seekers are unhoused, despite French law mandating that the government provides them with temporary shelter. When I first began planning the work in November 2019, over two hundred of these migrants lived in Squat Saint-Just, a three-story building owned by the diocese of Marseille that was home to the largest concentration of undocumented migrants in the city. Last winter, they were given an eviction notice for February 2020. The idea was that we would exploit Manifesta’s relationship to city politics and extend the life of the squat for at least the biennial’s length by using Saint-Just as the filming location and exhibition venue. Then the pandemic happened, and in June, the squat caught on fire, destroying the property and scattering the tenants across the city and the region. I ended up working with everyone remotely, from Saigon.
The script for Crimes of Solidarity grew out of conversations I had with tenants of the squat who were interested in participating in the project, most of whom are from Nigeria. I asked them what they might want to share with me or a wider audience, and much of this came through long discussions via Skype which I recorded and organized in exhaustive notes. We interwove these throughout the work, and when shooting the scripted scenes, my cinematographer Son Doan and I decided to stick with that portrait-mode format, which privileges the human body. We adhered to that aspect ratio when filming the onstage performance as well, at the Music Conservatory of Marseille, the new venue.
Representations of migrants and refugees in mainstream media, and in contemporary art, tend to depict voiceless subjects. I wanted to engage critically with this absence and its tropes while inviting this specific community to find their own language and countermythologies. Sharon Omoreuyi reads a letter addressed to her son, Marvelous, in the year 2033, when he will be eighteen. Blessing Yacoubou, uncomfortable with speaking about her children for the video, sings a ballad instead at Cours Julien. Characters also ask each other about how the film is going, talk about IP contracts and event content. Sekou Fofana mentions how the director wants him to become a production manager. My hope is that this self-referentiality questions assumptions about who is telling whose stories, as well as emphasizes my own complicity, alongside that of the viewer, in circulating and consuming such stories within the context of the biennial.
During the performance at the conservatory, the footage played with muted dialogue, so that only the music and sound effects were audible. From memory, the participants attempted to sync their voices with their lips onscreen. It’s about reclaiming voice and prioritizing the presence of the body from which the live voice speaks. But I’m also interested in the idea of being able to throw one’s voice, how the slippages and synchronicity of ventriloquism can, if done right, become a kind of magic. You’re at once embodied and disembodied, occupying multiple spaces, present, past, even future tense. Now that the Manifesta performances have taken place, the video’s actions have become a rehearsal for something that’s already happened. Storytelling can be a form of care, transmission, and memorialization, but it can also be a negotiation, or an audition. In the opening scene, an immigration officer asks one performer, Treasure Omorowa, “Where did you buy your story from?” Within the legal apparatus, asylum-seekers’ stories are often seen as currency within a narrative economy that prizes a romanticized understanding of statelessness. I wanted to address this while grounding participants’ stories in acts of resistance and solidarity across time.
— As told to Zack Hatfield