The Propeller Group discusses Vietnamese graffiti, infiltrating the advertising world and their upcoming show at the Guggenheim.
When Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Phunam, and Matt Lucero started The Propeller Group in Ho Chi Minh City in 2006, achieving their goal of large-scale collaboration with Vietnamese artists proved both complicated and unpredictable. The collective’s work, blending interests in the visual arts, video, media, and popular culture, is both ironic and earnest, with a political awareness that lurks just below the surface. The Propeller Group straddles a new space between the art gallery and the media world, with an interdisciplinary and border-crossing appeal. By playing with cultural boundaries and bringing artists from around the world to Vietnam, they upend viewers expectations and, it appears, the expectations of the artists themselves. You can see their video project, Television Commercial for Communism (TVCC), at the Guggenheim’s No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia exhibit, opening on February 22nd in New York.
This interview was conducted over the phone with Tuan Andrew Nguyen in Los Angeles, followed by a second Skype call with Tuan, joined by Phunam and Matt Lucero in Ho Chi Minh City.
Diane Mehta What inspired you to establish the collective?
Propeller Group Matt and I [Tuan] started doing collaborative projects while we were at CalArts in 2003-2004. At CalArts, we were organizing public events and symposiums and also doing collaborative projects with other artists too.
In 2005, I met Phunam in Vietnam. There wasn’t a lot happening in the arts scene that really intrigued us at the time, so we began to make video and films together. We noticed graffiti in Vietnam for the first time—when we started asking around, we discovered it was this one kid in Hanoi, Linkfish. He was inspired by the graffiti on Mear One’s 1999 Significant One album cover for Limp Bizkit and was trying to figure out what it all meant in a Vietnamese context.
In 2006, with Spray it, Don’t Say it, we began documenting graffiti artists, who were just starting to adopt American-style graffiti and place it in the Vietnamese landscape. Phunam and I continued shooting documentaries but quickly discovered that it was difficult to film in public without the proper permissions. We decided to register as a film production company—forming a company would make it easier to get the paperwork done—but realized that if we set up as an advertising company instead, we could film in public, rent out billboards, buy media space on TV channels, and generally have more freedom.