Nguyễn + Transitory © Photo by Fatha K.
An Interview with Nguyễn + Transitory

Failing at the Impossible: Attempts at Embodying Matriarchy

By Kamila Metwaly, republished 2021

Berlin-based duo Nguyễn + Transitory (Nguyễn Baly and Tara Transitory) traverse the boundaries between sound, synthesis, noise, rhythm, and performance to explore various Southeast Asian + diaspora queer existences and histories. Ahead of the premiere of their work »Bird Bird, Touch Touch, Sing Sing« at CTM Festival in 2019, they spoke with journalist and curator Kamila Metwaly, they discuss a wide range of themes such as reassessing the politics of the senses, collective intersectional feminism, and the challenges and failings of their practice.

Kamila Metwaly: Let's start with »Bird Bird, Touch Touch, Sing Sing,« the work you will perform at CTM.

Nguyễn + Transitory: This is still a work in progress – one which we have been developing since early 2018, when we were exploring the possibilities of touch, proximity, and feedback as primary elements in a sound composition/performance. Concurrently, we decided to start building and using a modular synthesiser system, as this would enable some sort of flexibility in adjusting what we would like to control, and in a way that was more direct and immediate than if we had used a computer. Besides that immediacy, the sound palette that is offered by analogue synthesisers is both limiting and freeing, which sounds a bit contradictory but somehow makes sense at this point in our practice. While developing this piece, we were also trying to understand this new system we were building. As collateral, we had composed quite a number of sound pieces along the way, which we plan to release at some point in the future and are in the process of finding a suitable label for.

KM: I experienced this work when you first presented it in Berlin in June 2018. As an audience member, I felt like I was part of a collective entity consisting of many bo­dies, machines, and wires. You touch each other to produce sound and touch us – the audience – through vibration. With a seemingly abstract medium such as sound, you reminded me of the very primal urge to (re)connect, attach, and touch, weaving together one another’s vulnerabilities, interdependency, closeness, and disorientation. You have noted that societies are desensitised from what touch could or could not mean; why else did you focus on touch?

N+T: We were interested in creating music together with our bodies, working with touch, amalgamating our physical bodies with parts of the instrument, and working with each other in the most direct way – to go beyond merely reacting to what the other is producing sonically. We wanted to become part of the instrument and to dissolve the individual in the process, and oftentimes we fail in this attempt at the impossible.

Some of the key themes that we have been dealing with on both personal and professional levels include vulnerability, interdependency, closeness, trust, and intimacy. We tried to instill these in our collaboration and creation process. We are deve­loping a work that addresses, explores, and embodies these qualities that are very close to us. In its own way, we feel the piece is a response to the frustrations we have towards the failings of normalised structures that are today, more than ever, able to impose their destructive value systems onto almost all facets of our universally-shared co-existence. The act of touching has somewhat been denigrated as of late, becoming associated with the negative more than the positive, and the act of reclaiming it was one of the central elements in »Bird Bird, Touch Touch, Sing Sing.« Touch, together with the use of collaborative feedback creation, the distance between us, and the distance between us and the instrument, affects the sound, which then affects the composition, which then affects our movement. This unintentionally creates another feedback loop which transcends the realms of the physical, the ethereal, and the magical.

KM: During the performance you were interweaving the energies in the room through a transmission of knowledge, almost dissecting the singular in the plural. In the moment when you are on stage as two bodies, do you consciously ask us to be close to you and vulnerable? To open up our senses, and propose that another language is possible?

N+T: We often hope to share the specific collective experience together with the audience in the space. The collective experience in this case would take the physical form and setting of a performance that somehow tries to embody those themes through transmission and communication, both between us (the performers) and you (the audience). Maybe that is where the art happens – beyond the aesthetics of sound, presentation, sceno­graphy, and presence – in an intangible, sometimes intentional, sometimes serendipitous exchange. We communicate beyond language, in silence, and with silence, despite the soundscape that drones on. Although we only communicate with our bodies, we reveal quite a lot about ourselves personally. We collaborate not only artistically, but also in everyday life. How and what we perform on stage also represent our relationship to each other, how we feel, and what makes us vulnerable – all this inevitably gets transmitted. The setting for this performance, which in itself is somewhat neutral, loses its neutrality once the bodies that carry their experiences enter the fold, bringing along histories, sentiments, memories, and interpretations. They infuse the collective experience, touching each of us with the usual mixes of anxieties, elations, pains, ebullitions, and ambiguities. Perhaps it was some of this that you felt.

KM: Baly, as a solo artist, you work mainly in the performing arts, but also with sound art and music. How do they intersect in your practice?

Nguyễn Baly: I usually work as a musician and performer in different constellations with choreographers and artists in the performing arts. Depending on who I am working with, I can be more or less free in what I am doing, though sometimes I feel more like a service provider than an artist. This made me decide at some point to work only with artists who are really interested in eye-level collaborations, in which our vision and politics might resonate, or in which we are at least willing to understand each other. I also try to avoid producing easily categorisable work – work which falls nicely into industry-defined genres. The sort of sound pieces I create depend largely on the context of the performance or theatre piece. With each collaboration, if possible, I try out new ways of creating music.            
I am particularly interested in how we can break away from specific knowledges of musics. To me, music feels like it has always contained within itself certain knowledges, lineages, memories, emotions, and thoughts. Yet despite globalisation, much of non-Western music, if we can call it that, is still strongly associated somehow with its supposed geographical-ethnic origins. I feel that understanding music in this essentialist way comes from a dominant Eurocentric, patriarchal lens. In my work, I try to explore the relationships between these processes and the music/sound/art that I make from a slightly more postcolonialist angle. In little ways, I try to come up with methods that are less influenced by this dominant approach. Usually these methods are quite subtle and not very literal, because I often wonder if actively decolonising these processes has to be cerebral.

KM: Tara, in your previous work you have been extremely sensitive about working with samples. How did this come about and how has it developed?

Tara Transitory: My feelings towards sampling have de­finitely shifted over the years, from using it recklessly and in abundance to nowadays using very little of it, and only using samples that I generate myself. How this came about definitely has to do with that sensitivity you mentioned. I guess my po­litics back then led me to assume that everything could be sampled and re-used in materialising the vision of the artist. Then I started to believe that by sampling, even if only taking a field recording of a place, I am not just taking the sonic identity of a place, but also part of its soul. I feel that this appropriation of the soul is much more obvious and literal when sampling someone’s voice, because we do not just take the voice, we take what the person is trying to transmit, their emotional state, their histories, their narrative, their lifeblood. And for what grander purpose was I doing it? To keep an archive for future generations to reference? To reappropriate that into my work and call it my art? I ran out of excuses and could no longer bear to take credit for that which was not mine.

I do believe that some things in this world were never meant to be seen, heard, experienced, or much less documented. It is perfectly fine for me that some things exist forever in secret or that they disappear forever. I don’t have a need to discover everything there is to discover – even less if I consider the negative costs that could come with that selfish curiosity.

Tara Transitory Photos by Fatha K. Nguyễn Baly Photos by Fatha K. Tara Transitory (top) and Nguyễn Baly (bottom). Photos by Fatha K.

KM: Your recent collaboration challenges our perception and categorisation of what is commonly considered contemporary music and dance. Together, you fluidly take us beyond such constructs of form and genre. You dance and move to create sound, and through sound you move and dance. How do you grapple between those two worlds and still pay the bills?

N+T: It has been and still is difficult getting support from institutions and festivals for our work. We feel that this is due partly to what you have described, that it falls into the interstices between clearly demarcated categories. Many institutions and cultural managers still come across as quite clueless when it comes to works that are inherently multidisciplinary and do not fit neatly into those well-established categories, or works which are not easily reproducible, presentable, and predictable. This is quite shocking. It is almost as if the last century of the Western avant-garde canon ne­ver existed, maybe partly due to some movement’s resistance to institutional appropriation, or to market policies. But this collective erasure by the cultural institutions of today is quite revealing of the contemporary cultural climate. Despite what one might think, the cultural climate of 2019 in some ways feels as conservative as it did half a century ago, if not more. Nonetheless, being in this peripheral position professionally is definitely not easy to sustain, especially as we both come from working class backgrounds. We have managed to survive so far, maybe due to good fortune and the support of some, but we feel that those days are numbered and the inevitable reckoning of collapse and burnout is around the corner.

KM: Both separately as individual artists and collectively as a duo, it almost seems that your work is anti-production and anti-novelty. Do you connect with such positions?
N+T: It does not make much sense for us to produce one project after another, as we feel it is more important to have depth and dedication in deve­loping ideas. For us, these processes usually take time to materialise and they do not function by the logics of the market. We see our work more as an ongoing process – one in which we can only see how to move one step at a time. It’s a process which isn’t clearly defined and intentionally lacks a clear outcome. This unfortunately sits at odds with market logic, and not being understood has become synonymous with this process.

Nguyễn + Transitory © Photos by Fatha K.

Nguyễn + Transitory © Nguyễn Transitory Nguyễn + Transitory. Photos by Fatha K.

KM: As queer artists of Southeast Asian backgrounds, you have shared your fears with regards to your futures and described how your identities have been appropriated and consequently othered, often as a result of certain dominant curatorial practices and institutional booking policies. Can you elaborate on these worries?

N+T: When an industry thrives on superficialities such as discovering and presenting only »new« things and those that fit into what is marked as trending, then it would come as little surprise that its championing of progressive politics might be nothing more than posturing. What seems to be a trend amongst many cultural institutions recently is the need to show inclusivity in the diversity of its programming, and it is in this limited scope that we see the Women, the Queers, the Indigenous, the Africans, the Arabs, the Asians, etc. We ask: who do these inclusivity/diversity showcases benefit? One way to look at it is that on the one hand, yes, it does give visibility and a platform for the underrepresented, but on the other, only a handful are fortunate enough to be given that opportunity, and most are used for some time and then replaced when that topic is not trending anymore. To have such programming makes many traditionally conservative institutions seem progressive, garnering them support from a demographic that might not have traditionally supported them, so they publicly project themselves to be more progressive than they are. It’s basically a win-win situation for them. We have nothing against programming more underrepresented identities, but we question what the intentions are for wanting to do so. Because until we have more underrepresented, under-privileged, subaltern, under-class folks in decision-making positions in the arts and elsewhere, and until the cultural institutions themselves unsubscribe from the logics of capitalism and patriarchy, the cultural landscape will not be fundamentally altered.

KM: Is persistence a part of your practice?

N+T: When thinking of persistence, we are reminded more of the word »extant« and its relationship to us. We continue to exist despite conditions more suited to our extinction. Given these circumstances, our professional work, the sort of work it is, the medium, the politics embedded in it, and the values by which we try to live, perpetual precarity is destiny. But despite such dire and unfavourable conditions, we are still persisting in our attempts at embodying matriarchy and failing at the impossible.