https://cdosea.orgvarious video formats and algorithmic editing system, infinite duration
Introduced by Heidi Ballet
What constitutes the unity of Southeast Asia—a region never unified by language, religion or political power? With The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia—a collaborative platform that facilitates ongoing research, a matrix for generating future projects, and an oracular montage machine—Ho Tzu Nyen proposes 26 terms (one for each letter of the latin alphabet) that question, problematise, and address the complex definition of the territories under this nomenclature.
Heidi Ballet: The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia is a database composed of texts, music, and online images that you have been composing for several years. For each screening, an algorithm selects and weaves together a different set of sounds and images as to form an Abecedary of Southeast Asia. What led you to start this big project?
Ho Tzu Nyen: The term Southeast Asia emerged out of World War II as the way the American military referred to the region. So one starting point for this project was a question—what constitutes the unity of Southeast Asia, a region that has never been unified by language, religion or political structures? I began compiling a series of concepts, anecdotes, motifs, and biographies that seem relevant to this question, and many of the works that I've produced in the last few years such as Ten Thousand Tigers from 2014, 2 or 3 Tigers from 2015, and One or Several Tigers in 2017 all came out of this collection. Tigers dispersed across Southeast Asia more than a million years ago, before the emergence of homo sapiens, and myths of the tiger as an ancestral kin and beliefs in weretigers, were found throughout the region. These myths, along with tigers, were wiped out in the era of Colonialism. But we see tigers returning as metaphors for humans who live at edge of civilization—in the form of Communist guerillas, bandits, and even the Japanese army during WWII. The algorithmic editing system enabled me to present the collection as a whole, the infinite combinations generating unexpected linkages amongst the fragments, while producing an endless series of possible Southeast Asias.
HB: Southeast Asia has a tradition of ungovernable groups that have continuously managed to escape state control thanks to a set of strategies that enhanced mobility, as described in James C. Scott’s 2009 book The Art of Not Being Governed, which you have mentioned before as a reference. Does mythology at the level of the nation state play a role in the dictionary?
HTN: In the tradition of Pierre Clastre's groundbreaking work, one of the great myths that Scott’s book demolishes is that non-state peoples 'lack' a state. Instead Scott identifies the mobility and mutability characteristic of these peoples as technologies developed specifically to repel state formation from within, and absorption from without. These ideas permeate the Dictionary at different levels, from their direct manifestation in terms such as ‘A for Altitude / A for Anarchism’, to subtler influences in a number of terms related to shape-shifters, such as the Sino-Vietnamese triple agent and Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party from 1939 to 1947 under ‘L for Lai Teck / L for Legibility’, to ‘T for Tiger’ and ‘W for Weretiger’. To track the tiger is to embark on a journey that has no respect for national boundaries, or borders between humans and non-humans.
HB: The soundtrack of the work consists of a haunting chant performed by Bani Haykal that leads the viewer through the work. Why did you choose to have the text sung?
HTN: Music has become, for me, an access to speech. I've always found it extremely uncomfortable to work with spoken text in my video and performance works and I think this is due in large part to my history of growing up in Singapore, where I spoke Mandarin at home but received my education in English. This alienation from a mother tongue resulted in a kind of linguistic homelessness, an awkwardness that I am liberated from by musical speech where official syntax and proper enunciation are subject to distortions driven by expressive urges.
The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia was presented in collaboration with the 2017 edition of LIAF—Lofoten International Art Festival, curated by Heidi Ballet and Milena Høgsberg
Concept, Text, Materials: Ho Tzu Nyen Programming, Website Design: Jan Gerber, Sebastian Lütgert (0x2620)Music: Yasuhiro MorinagaVocals: Bani Haykal
Project commissioned by Asia Art Archive
Korean subtitles courtesy of National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul (MMCA)Norwegian subtitles courtesy of Lofoten International Art Festival (LIAF)