April 28, 2005
Mapping the Media
I'm often asked what is media art? My degree is in Studio for Interrelated Media. My business cards read media arts. For me, the 'media' refers less to the medium that I work in (be it plaster, video, performance, etc) but rather media as the focus. Using information found in the in newspapers, magazines, tabloids, and on the internet toward the creative process and in turn situating the work to comment upon media issues. How does the mass of information, or in some cases the lack of information, affect our lives? I am a news junkie. I skim at least a dozen newspapers online, scope out blogs, and download rss feeds to my pda for eating and toilet reading, daily. The challenge then, for either the reader or the artist, is to make sense of the information at ones disposal. Below are two tools and one blog that also, do their daily thing.
Buzztracker (above) visualizes the news, where it happens. The program takes a daily snap shot of the news stories generated in the world press, and displays the top 10 news locations upon a skewed Mercator projection map, the size of each point corresponding to the percentage of daily news generated from that location.
information aesthetics: form follows data - towards creative information visualization
Newsmap, on the other hand, analyzes the news stories themselves (or more accurately, the news information based on the google news aggregator) and displays the titles in an area map. This map is very similar the the SmartMoney Market Map
What's worse than bad map?
Bad street signs. Case one: Ho Chi Minh City. How do you NOT determine the street you're on in HCMC? By looking at the street signs. By intuitively looking where you ought to look, you will be dumbfounded to discover that all of the street signs throughout the city are facing the wrong direction - towards the flow of the opposite traffic! So, you're motorbiking it down street X wanting to know if the next cross street is Y. You crane your neck 180 degrees as you pass the sign hoping that you don't collide into either a) incoming traffic or b) someone doing the same thing. You discover that you just passed the street you were looking for and have to make an illegal u-turn to continue on your way. The picture above is an example. Note it is an intersection of one-way streets, direction indicated by arrows. You wouldn't know it because the red one-way sign also faces the direction of non-existing traffic (we'll have to assume the sign is for the dumbass who hadn't realized he was already driving against traffic - and this happens a lot!). You'll figure out that the street signs are only visible once you pass them! The solution. Don't look at the street signs, glance at the store signage as you drive down the street. You'll may not know where you're going, but you'll always know where you are.
Case number two: Dubai International Airport. This was taken from the March/April Issue of Print Magazine. The original photo credit belongs to Amir Berbic. Anyhow, I dont' really need to go into any detail. The picture speaks for itself and it has nothing to do with not knowing Arabic.
But what can you do when the street signage sucks? Get rid of them completely, as in this real-world radical move by traffic engineer Hans Monderman. No street signs, no crosswalks, no accidents, just commonsense.
April 22, 2005
Artists Raised by Designers
Romulus, the founder of Rome, and his brother Remus as boys were raised by a she-wolf. Tarzan, also adopted, called a band of apes family. In Disney's The Fox and the Hound (which was my younger brother's favorite movie as a boy) were meant to be sworn enemies. There are countless stories of self-discovery under the influence of "the other". Adoption and adaptation of another's way of living. Some are mythical, others are true and not so fantastic. For me: an Vietnamese adoptee of German American family; an artist schooled on design; raised in America, living in Vietnam; four years of art school in exchange for three years in the army.
There is an interesting article in the March/April 2005 issue of Print by Rick Poyner on the intersections between art and design. The article is titled "Kissing Cousins", with the subhead "Art's romance with design produces powerful commentary on popular culture by artists. Can designers do the same?" Luckily a friend was able to locate a copy during her recent travels in the US. Contemporary art and design magazines in HCMC are either hard to find or prohibitively expensive.
Now, as a professional artist I find my work often drawing upon my early foundation in graphic design. When Poyner writes of how poor typography in artwork can destroy an otherwise conceptually outstanding piece, he hits it on the nail. How many times have we encountered artwork with horrible typesetting, beautiful images coupled with badly kerned text, or ambitious projects that ultimately fail because a garble of typefaces unable to communicate?
I also enjoyed reading a posting on the Design Observer by Pentagram designer Michael Beirut on artist Barbara Kruger, who began her creative life as a graphic designer. Her work relies on strategic couplings of image with text. Not just any text. Futura, sometimes italic or bold or both, but always, always, properly set. Would her work have significantly less impact were the typeface an afterthought. Most certainly. Does a scream in Times New Roman resonate the same way as Courier or Meta Bold? You know the answer.
I remember the day I dropped out of the graphic design, three years into four year degree program, to pursue my interests in the arts. Another student, who had impressed nearly all of the design faculty decided to go into ceramics shortly after. It was clear to me then as it is now, I had been given something extraordinarily special. My teachers had so inspired me that I was driven to see beyond design. They were generous to a student who wanted not to be a designer but to think like one. In the months leading to my crossover I made the decision then never to work as a full-time commercial graphic designer, and I've kept that promise. But I've never stopped loving design. Every trajectory is determined by a point before.
There is something special about Poyner's article. It's like a good appetizer. I hope follows through this investigation and that the meal is as tasty.
April 20, 2005
You know, some things are so mired in details that an explanation becomes overblown. You wished you hadn't asked.
So, to keep it short. Latin roots: dia (through, between, apart, across) and crit (to separate, discern, judge). Diacritical marks are the typographic marks used in the Vietnamese written language to determine tone, vowel and consanant. For example, my birth name, Trần Trọng Đạt.
So it is a double-entendre. There's the Dia Art Center in New York and now there's the diacritic in Saigon. Hopefully the bases will be covered.
And it's my birthday today.
April 10, 2005
Hard To Say I'm Sorry
The other night as our flight was preparing for landing upon return to Saigon from Bangkok, over the PA system the flight attendant announced that the Vietnamese customs declarations forms would have to obtained at the airport. A major drag but not entirely out of the ordinary for Vietnam Airlines. Behind me, a man demanded a flight attendant. He then proceeded to vent his frustration demanding that the airline apologize to him personally for negligence. The awkward exchange was further complicated by strongly accented Vietnamese-English and Japanese-English. The situation escalated. The man then extended the oversight of the airline to the cultural generalization that "Vietnamese people never apologize."
A quick search through the international press will yield a wealth of articles concerning the subject of Japan and apologies. Punch it in google and see what turns up. Query another for Vietnam and apology. You'll note that the world largely demands an apology FROM Japan and TO Vietnam.
Apologies are extremely sensitive. I won't go into detail about the arguments, you can do your own research - online coverage is widely available. I would rather begin an investigation into apology and blame as it evolves in the media. In general, history tells that the vanquished usually apologize to the victors. While many examples seem to follow this trend, the difficulty then becomes determining the victor and vanquished. Where Vietnam won its national struggle for independence and Japan lost its national conquest of Asia, it is Japan that remains one of the most politically and economically powerful nations in the world. So much that it is being considered for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
This bid for the security council seat coupled with the controversy over the release of new school textbooks for Japanese students has once again provoked the ire of Korea and China, who see the Japanese unrepentant in its apparent historical amnesia of war atrocities committed during WWII.
And now the Cambodians are joining in the tag team. A recent announcement on BBC reports that a Japanese firm is finalizing plans to market the Killing Fields through investments and improvements to the the genocide site- in effect transforming it into a revenue-generating tourist theme park (it plans to raise the admission price by 600%). This comes only months after Japan agrees to donate more than $US 21 million toward UN-backed trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders in Cambodia. The gift was at first met with international praise. That is, until Pol Pot Disney was announced. Was the offer genuine, or was it simply factored in the operating costs of other long-term investments?
But we need to take a step back. Is this current tide against Japan justified? Might people just be overreacting? Is bashing Japan a knee-jerk reaction? Is Japan becoming a scapegoat for Asia's problems? Is the sickness the effect of the symptoms or are the symptoms the illness? A person believes that an evil clown dwarf inside of him is eating his stomach. He might be so distressed by the fear that he manifests the symptoms- ulcers and internal bleeding. There are certainly many problems in Asia but are the causes what we believe them to be?
Hard to Say I'm Sorry? US: Don't.
Governments simply find it Hard To Say I'm Sorry. The disappointment with the late court dismissal of the Agent Orange case against the United States Government and certain chemical corporations on behalf of victims of agent orange poisoning is likely to find sympathetic ears by Koreans forced into institutionalized prostition whose own legal struggle for compensation and acknowledgement was thrown out of the Japanese courts. But what of the thousands of Japanese who suffered the aftermath of atomic fallout. Don't they deserve an apology too?
If the Japan has the inability to apologize, then what of the United States? Below is a list of ten international agreements that the the US has refused to recognize. Consider US global policy and war making and how they might be complicated by the recognization of such treaties.
(1) Convention on Discrimination Against Women (2) Convention on the Rights of the Child (3) Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (4) Kyoto Protocol (5) Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (6) Anti-Ballistic Missle Treaty (7) Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (8)Chemical Weapons Convention (9) Land Mine Ban Treaty (10) International Criminal Court
* I used information regularly posted on ESWN in researching this post.
Is the cell structure ASEAN (Association of Southeast Nations) undergoing mitosis, dividing between the wealthy and the poor? This year's chairmanship of the organization belongs to Myanmar. Anyone who is generally familiar with Myanmar might find this strange. The nation, formerly known as Burma, has been isolated from the international community. The ongoing house arrest of democratically elected and Nobel Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi by the ruling military junta has been a major point of contention. ASEAN, noted for a non-interference policy regarding the domestic policies of its member states, in a precedent setting move some member nations have hinted towards an exception.
"Politicians in ASEAN countries Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore have been seeking to prevent Myanmar's military rulers from taking over as chair next year. The United States and the European Union have also warned ties with ASEAN may be frayed and that they may boycott further ASEAN meetings." Full article"
In the last days, Myanmar received official support from Vietnam, despite the embarrasment Mynamar caused Vietnam less than a year ago. Vietnam, then hosting ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting, which brings together 13 Asian states and the 25 European Union members), fought to support Myanmar's membership into the organization in spite strong resistance from several ASEM European nations. After Vietnam's successful campaign to induct Mynamar into ASEM with assurances from Myanmar toward making progress in its democratic and human rights reforms, the military junta returned to Myanmar and further consolidated its power - in effect ignoring the agreements made just weeks before. Now, Vietnam steps up the plate, risking strike two by offering unquestioned support for Mynamar:
"As both countries are members of ASEAN, Vietnam and Myanmar share common viewpoints and interests," said the Vietnamese daily Nhan Dan, "Vietnam supports Myanmar's regional and international integration and its participation in the activities of ASEAN and ASEM.
Once again, emboldened, Burma shrugs off Asean criticism, with expressed support from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. With Myanmar, the nations are among ASEAN's poorest, with Malaysia and Singapore among the wealthiest.
April 08, 2005
Books at the local librium
Kinokuniya Bookstore, Bangkok
I've recently had some interesting conversations on the subject of contemporary arts information in Vietnam . Last evening during an informal discussion about an upcoming photography project with an artist friend in HCMC, the issue of complaints about the lack of arts information came up. On one hand, it is true that there is less contemporary arts and design information in Vietnam when compared to what can be found in Thailand or Cambodia. A visit to any bookstore in Vietnam, Vietnamese-language arts books largely stop at the modern period. A short supply of foreign language arts books and magazines can be had in English, French and German, but at a ridiculous cost, often 400% list price. The outrageous price tags, in part, stems from the import taxes stores must pay. Thus good books remain out of reach to most people. Yet when information is available, often the very same artists will ignore the opportunity. They refuse to attend artist talks, and have not desire to participate in projects designed to improve the level of discourse. As it goes, ignorance is bliss.
Although I now have my personal arts library with me, it came at a terrible price. It was a lesson that I care never to repeat, despite a personal dream for a contemporary arts resource center here in HCMC, such as the Hong Kong-based Asian Art Archives.
It's been months now since my Contemporary Video Arts course was cancelled in progress at the HCMC Fine Arts University. Teaching, I've realized is a tool that keeps one sharp. The process of organization information for public delivery keeps one agile and fresh. Teaching elsewhere has been considered. I miss my students.
Meanwhile Vietnamese students have problems. Serious problems. They are not equipped with proper research skills and there is really no incentive to excel. And for those ambitious and curious students, there are insane obstacles to simply checking out a book. You can read about Vietnamese students avoid inconvenient libraries in today's Thanh Nien newspaper. Should gifted students in mathematics dream of settling for a nice accounting position (see this article on Mexican students in the New York Times)
Much can be incorporated from abroad towards the improvement of the arts and education situation here in Vietnam, such as the MAD program in Chiangmai, there are models Vietnam would be best to avoid, such as the Communication University in Beijing.
I believe there is a direct relationship between quality of bookstores and standard of living. Once the bookstores improve in Vietnam, so will the country, or the other way around.
* Librium: Brand name for Chlordiazepoxide, a tranquilizer. Chlordiazepoxide acts selectively on polysynaptic neuronal pathways and may inhibit or augment transmission.
April 06, 2005
Back to the Ho-tel
Returned last evening to Ho Chi Minh City, luckily. Having already missed one flight in the last week, I almost got bumped in Bangkok for having a "used" stamp on my multiple entry visa for Vietnam.
Anyhow, there's something about this city that I always love returning to. I'm not sure what it is, only that after a couple months I always feel the need to escape it. The motorcyle congestion, dust and never-ceasing activity. A world away from say, Chiang Mai, or even Bangkok. It is about the differences between two regional neighbors that has my focus today. I just polished off a reply to a friend in the US, a designer now working in ceramics, about the state of design in Vietnam.
Both design and education in Vietnam are in desperate need of reform. We are seeing a commercial interest developing in design education, for example, schools that specialize in graphic, video and web software training. But for a handful of exceptions, the conceptual and creative development is seriously compromised, which more often than not, defaults to ripping off ideas and visual styles from more established design trends. How many "matrix" inspired tv commercials can one see in a 5 minute block on VTV? I have counted 3. I have recently returned from a creative junket in Thailand (well, not technically a junket, since everything came out of my own pocket). It is interesting to observe the disparity in the design sophistication among the two countries.
Vietnam can and must move forward in the creative sector. But improvements must be made around the board from education, to commerce, and even to cultural criticism. Can somebody please redesign a comfortable and cheap plastic stool for sidewalk eating? Stackable yet ergonomic (that is, ergonomic for Vietnamese people who can maintain a position with bended knees for hours). On a more positive upnote, some Vietnamese designers are taking the challenge seriously, such as FontViet, who have redesigned some of the finest typefaces to work with Vietnamese diacritical marks properly. Careful attention here is paid to the unusual design challenges of the extended baselines and cap heights.
I brought back some interesting design magazines, such as Art4D, to share with my colleagues. I believe that condition will improve here. But it's going to be a long haul. It remains to be seen if Cambodia will surpass Vietnam in the process.
Footnote: Back to the Hotel, an old-school 90's hip hop track from the Bay Area's N2Deep. How appropriate.
April 05, 2005
CMU Media Arts and Design
I had an interesting conversation with Kosit, professor of media arts at Chiangmai University. The program is now in its second year, with Kosit returning last year from nearly 7 years in Germany. He has developed a number of interesting projects within the program, including the new film space. Below is an image of the new Film Space project. I also spoke to Uthit who directs the program. The program is certainly one at the forefront of exploring media arts within education in southeast asia and one I look forward on keeping an eye on. Unfortunately, I missed a meeting with Thasnai Sethaseree, who is running the Media Ethnology platform. Hopefully, I'll be able to establish a line of communication via email. I'll post pics once I return to HCMC.
This morning I received an email from Brian Duggan, who I met over a year ago in Bangkok, that my proposal for an installation has been accepted by the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin, Ireland. This marks the first time my work will be exhibited, physically, in Europe. The installation will be part of a larger group show running from July through October 2005. I will be collaborating in HCMC with photographer Trung Bui Nam to create a series of medium format prints for the photographic component of the installation. There may also be possibilities of exhibiting recent videos produced by projectone as well.
The exhibition, which runs from July 7 to September 30 (with possibility of extending through October), is described on the Hugh Lane Gallery Current Exhibitions site as:
Curated by Mark Cullen and Brian Duggan
July – October 2005
After a period of closure for building works The Hugh Lane is very pleased to re-open with a temporary exhibition programme beginning with Clarke and McDevitt Present and followed by Pallas Off-Site, both exhibitions where the Head of Exhibition, Christina Kennedy has invited collaboration with artists in the curation of its temporary exhibitions programme. This programme deliberately underpins the Gallery’s role in the presentation of contemporary art practice in Dublin.
April 03, 2005
Chiang Mai Deux
Arrived in Chiang Mai this morning after missing last evening's last flight out of Bangkok. Hopefully, I'll be able to contact Uthit and Thasnai, both faculty at the Media Arts and Design department at Chiang Mai University during my short return here.
On a not-so-entirely different topic, I received an email from Sue Hadju, an Australian artist based in Ho Chi Minh City, who is curating the Vietnam portion of a multinational photo exhibition. 600 Images/60 Artists/6 Curators/6 Cities. (Bangkok/Berlin/LA/London/Manila/Saigon). April is turning out to be a busy month.
April 02, 2005
Playground opened yesterday to much fanfare. What might have been mistaken outside as lines for a club, the 'inspiration store' features some of the familiar names in fashion, furniture, home design, and with separate sections for books, food, coffee and music. It's quite an ambitious project and i'll write more about it later. It sort of reminds me of Urban Outfitters, but more modern than punk, more prefab than dyi, and definitely more Baht than barter. What might be a interesting development is their allotment of space to fine arts, where yesterday artist Sakarin Krue-on exhibited his new video art installation. more to come on this.
April 01, 2005
Thaipography: Books and Coffee.
Today's entry comes from Black Canyon Coffee, in the Silom Complex at the Sala Daeng stop on the BTS. Yesterday was spent hitting the bookstores and reading magazines. Bought several issues of Art4D for the folks back in Saigon. I will meet Som at Jim Thompson today and hopefully Jeab later on this evening. Tomorrow I will likely take off to Chiang Mai to follow up on the Media Ethnology platform at the CMU Design and Media Arts Department. Also look into scholarship opportunities for a friend back in Saigon. Bangkok is a moving city. I can only think what HCMC would be if we had the arts and design information that artists and students have access to here. Read an interesting article on Pongstorn Limanon, a designer working with typeface design. The article was called, Thaipography.