Wong Bing Hao
22 January 2021—22 January 2022
Commissioned essay, Crystal Clear, 2021, Published by XING.
Writer and curator Wong Bing Hao muses upon the series Topography of Vulnerabilities by Nguyễn + Transitory. Unearthing the work relationship to yesteryear technologies, vulnerability and trust, Bing reflects upon the potential of working with sound rather than language, of resting in allusiveness and volatility.
In the three extant iterations of Topography of Vulnerabilities (2020-), an ongoing series of sound installations by the duo Nguyễn + Transitory, decrepit technologies—a Nagra recorder, Oscillator, and analogue tapes—are configured and arranged in different permutations with light installations and plants to create immersive, sensorial and contingent experiences. Through various synthetic combinations, Nguyễn + Transitory manipulate and introduce variety to the oscillator’s basic wave forms. Difference, in their work with sound, is not entirely programmatic. Randomness and chance also factor into the sound composition, making it slightly different with every listen. Experiencing Topography of Vulnerabilities is akin to being enveloped, drawn in. This encounter is not, however, hypnotic, indoctrinating, or numbing: though barely perceptible, disconcertion is at work. Senses are not idle.
The oscillator outputs the sound to the Nagra, which then records and plays it back. This process of recording and playback is repeated several times. Sounds from the oscillator, once pristine, take on different qualities and timbres with every iteration of feedback. Furthermore, running on a single, long tape loop, instead of the more traditional, shorter, dual tape loop, Nguyễn + Transitory intentionally introduce more elements of risk into the creation and reception of their installations. The lengthiness of their selected tape loop renders inconsistent the repetitive activity of recording and playback. The large spool of analogue tape is likely to slacken or stutter as it unwinds, effecting a significant degree of fluctuation and instability in the acoustic vibrations.
Nguyễn + Transitory embrace and exacerbate the fragility of aging machines and technologies, relinquishing control in their work with sound. Indeed, as the paradoxical title of their installations suggest, how might something as inchoate and intangible as vulnerability be delineated in form or distributed spatially?
In 1967, American artist Carolee Schneemann staged her multimedia performance Snows in New York City as a response to the atrocities of American imperialism during the Vietnam War. Over the course of its approximately 17-minute run, Snows featured six live performers in various configurations, a number of films and images projected onto the elaborate set and the performers’ bodies, technological apparatuses and fake snow. Evoking an blanketing, obfuscating deluge of numbness, Snows questioned the imperatives of what some have termed ‘poverty pornography’: the proliferation and internalisation of representations of violence and destitution in the media to the point of viewer desensitisation. Through televised broadcasts, a war happening halfway around the world was quite literally brought into American homes, where its scenes of grotesqueness could just as easily be attuned to or withdrawn from empathetic attention.
In Snows, Schneemann employed a variety of visual strategies to impede the passive consumption of mediated violence, most notably in the coda film Viet-Flakes, in which she used a magnifying glass to distort her personal collection of war photographs. To the same end, and with the technical support of the newly formed Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), Schneemann privileged chance and the audience’s unconscious feedback. For example, while the performers were engaged in paired esoteric motions, restless audience members who shifted about or fidgeted would unwittingly trigger the contact microphones wired to their seats, which would then alter the lighting displays and cue the performers to move on to a different set of performative actions.  In her detailed analysis of Snows, film and media scholar Erica Levin comments that while feedback is conventionally understood in cybernetic discourse ‘as a means for constraining contingency and refining processes of control,’ in Snows, feedback paradoxically delivered only ‘interference, signals that interrupt[ted] and redirect[ed] the actions taking place on stage.’  It is precisely this flurry of impedimentary signals that Nguyễn + Transitory welcome in their work. Deprivileging the postured clarity and coherence of communication that is one-way and prematurely developed, the duo hints at the activating possibilities of media. Their sound installations can therefore be thought of as overtures rather than punctuations.
1. Erica Levin, ‘Dissent and the Aesthetics of Control: On Carolee Schneemann’s Snows’, World Picture Journal, 8, 2013, http://www.worldpicturejournal.com/WP_8/PDFs/Levin.pdf
2. Ibid, 9
In her detailed study of the ‘intellectual biographies’ of 11 intergenerational Southeast Asian scholars of various disciplines, Goh Beng-Lan complicates facile binaristic critiques that interrogate the state of Southeast Asian studies by pitting insider against outsider, East against West. These ‘biographies’ are not, however, teleological, unquestioningly revelatory, or hygienically demarcated. Tracing the imbrications, complicities and exoduses in the life-work of the 11 scholars, Goh argues instead for a conceptualisation of Southeast Asia and its regional studies as ‘interconnected with, yet also distinct from, Euro-American disciplinary and conceptual legacies’. Rather than simply supplanting theoretical frameworks or making clean breaks with precedent epistemological categories as if they were completely unrelated, Goh perceives them as ‘products of time’ and advocates for the ‘simultaneity and interaction’ between supposedly antagonistic frameworks such as the global and the local.
Acutely aware of how they might be perceived, Nguyễn + Transitory are astute in their creative process and production. Rather than simply referencing or capitalisinge on what they call ‘cultural artefacts’ like their biography or identity, Nguyễn + Transitory do not feel the need to be identified by or corralled into delimiting frameworks. This might explain why they find working with sound and affect (often citing ‘vulnerability,’ ‘closeness,’ ‘trust’ and ‘interdependency’ as core areas of exploration in their practice), rather than language, more productive. Their economies of circulation—spanning nightlife, theatre, sound design, performance and contemporary art—also defy disciplinary and social silos, allowing them to source support and collaborative opportunities as well as build community and sustainability in different fields of cultural work. In spite of what may seem like a totally removed, abstract perspective on cultural production, Nguyễn + Transitory’s practice is firmly rooted in a politics of critical difference and long-term, on-the-ground research in Southeast Asia. These ethical commitments are in want of any sensationalism or brash publicity. It is perhaps in poor form that I bring this up in a fleeting epilogue, as I attempt, not without futility, to weave the gossamer threads that are Nguyễn + Transitory’s practice into some semblance of finite, knowable information; a testament to the artists’ savviness.
3. Goh Beng-Lan, "Disciplines and Area Studies in the Global Age: Southeast Asian Reflections," in Decentring and Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies: Perspectives from the Region (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011), 2-3, italics author's own
4. Goh Beng-Lan, "Disciplines and Area Studies in the Global Age: Southeast Asian Reflections," in Decentring and Diversifying Southeast Asian Studies: Perspectives from the Region (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2011), 43-44
Wong Bing Hao
Wong Binghao enjoys communicating between contexts and mediating art to diverse publics. Their practice eclectically constellates ideas, practitioners, text, and art, gesturing toward representational accountability and ethical, expansive cultural work. They write for artist books, exhibition catalogues, and a variety of publications including Artforum, Frieze, Leap, TextWork Fondation d'entreprise Pernod Ricard, Philippine Contemporary Art Network, and Southeast of Now. Recently, they served as Evaluator for the 2020 Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and presented their research at Bergen Kunsthall and the Gender in Southeast Asian Art Histories: Art, Digitality, Canon-making? Symposium. Their series of publications (Indifferent Idols 2018, nominal bliss 2019, forthcoming 2021) attempts to generate contextually specific, conceptually capacious, and emotionally available readings of art. Currently, they are the C-MAP Asia Fellow for the Museum of Modern Art, New York.