Creator Q&A : Van Tran Nguyen

Van Tran Nguyen

Artist and PhD candidate


In a few words state who you are, your occupation and what it is that you create. I'm currently a PhD candidate in the department of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), my work is mainly media -based but I've done performances and installations.

Describe what you see when you look out your window. Right now, my partner and I are quarantining together, we were in a long-distance relationship before this all went down but now he's here with me. Since he's here and needs the drawing table for his illustration work, I've sequestered myself to the living room which has a large window overlooking the hill that RPI sits on and some of my neighbor's backyard.

What is a podcast, book, or song that is keeping you sane? I've been listening to upbeat music to stay sane. I've been digging Caroline Polacheck's "Pang" album and have been playing that on a heavy rotation. Podcasts I've been into recently are: Ear Hustle, NYT's Rabbit Hole is phenomenal. I love good storytelling and investigative journalism so I've actually replayed some This American Life and Malcom Gladwell's Revisionist History. A not-so-guilty pleasure of mine is reality television, or the "Bravo Canon" so a great podcast is Bitch Sesh, which is a comedy recap of the hi-jinks of the housewives multiverse.

What is a word that makes you laugh? Hmm, I don't know of words that instantly make me laugh but recently my friend Hana explained to me that there are two categories of news: "Plague-splaining" which is the information you read that gives you the stats but also patronizes you at the same time and the other is "Bright-siding" which is news that is mildly yet barely reassuring and wants you to stay positive at all costs. We've laughed over sayinng "don't plaue-splain me!" and "don't bright-side me" I think it's better to see things as they are and found it to be funny because we had the same outlook on all of the information we were taking in. What is the color of your current mood?

Warm tan, kind of grounded and chilled. I also think this is also because this is the color of my new cat.

What is something that brings you joy?

My new cat, going on walks, doing creative projects with my partner and cooking elaborate meals

COVID-19 aside, what frustrates you? Bigotry, I guess that is COVID19 related as well. I'm frustrated by my own lack of patience, I'm frustrated that I can't open most jars by myself and I'm frustrated that my new cat is more nocturnal than we bargained for.

What do you feel most hopeful about? somehow, we'll come out of this a little more patient with ourselves and others and maybe more introspective.

How do you define your creative process - what makes you tick, what is your practice? My creative process is driven by a lack of something-representation, resources, etc. I am driven by holes in the story or history and then become obsessed about filling them, I think that's what starts it for me. Recently I've been working on this large project called "Erie County Smile" and it's essentially a parody of a Vietnamese language variety show I grew up watching (Paris By Night) and this substantial piece of media (PBN) isn't necessarily been taken very seriously as an important archival cultural relic, so I felt like I could take a closer look and since PBN, in a way, is quite self-serious I thought that there is potential in dissecting its influence with the framework of satire.

What is something challenging you’ve accomplished as a creator? I am a horrible writer, so being in a PhD program for me, has forced me out of a comfort zone with the copious amount of writing we have to do. I find writing to be immensely challenging and actually unpleasant, so writing as much as I have to do, I feel very accomplished when I feel proud of my writing and research.

Name an artist or creator you draw influence from? Duke and Battersby are filmmakers that I have had the pleasure of curating into our (with my co-curator, Natalie Fleming) exhibition (Art Stands Still) last year and I find them to be completely influential to me. Their work is playful, smart and so very funny. I also love Patty Chang and Adrian Piper, I really dig conceptual video works from both artists and pull inspiration from them every time I watch it. And also Trinh Minh Ha is a hero of mine, "Surname Viet, Given Name Nam" is one of my favorites.

How has COVID-19 affected you? Have you changed your process during quarantine? I had planned on doing a larger production and possibly a live performance of Erie County Smile at the end of the year and hoped to workshop it in a couple of theater spaces from now til them but that has completely been halted for me. Which, as frustrating as its been, I've been super privileged and lucky to have so much support with it moving forward in whatever iteration it must take shape as now. So I work smaller now and it's just been a ton of editing and post-production work, a bunch of time on my laptop, really is what that means.

In your opinion what do you think the “new normal” should look like for our global society? I mean, it's hard to say what it should take shape as-I'm hoping for the new normal to come with more nuance. I hope that there will be a bunch of iterations of "normal" and they're all gentler, kinder and empathetic. It has to begin with us taking a cold hard look at racial injustice, it's not just a social issue it's an environmental one as well. The global society, I hope, slows down. I think that our breakneck speed towards pleasing and feeding a capitalistic system brought us to this awful status quo and maybe the new normal should move towards a slower society with demands that inch towards fairness and equity. I know what I'm saying are like, large issues that are being inflated at we speak but I guess starting with the imagination of it isn't the worst thing I could be doing right now...

What do you look forward to most once quarantine restrictions are lessened? Holding people, embracing people.

In closing, describe or reflect on an aspect of nature that inspires you.

I was told by a monk, from the last time I visited my home temple in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to look at trees to learn stillness. I still do that sometimes, I like to look at trees and how still they are to slow down and breathe.