Do We Unlearn? A Path to Repair

Revisiting the impacts of modern developmentalism located in Asia, curator Jo Ying Peng, guest editor for the second part of this issue, reflects on artist Kao Jun Honn’s socially engaged practices and invites curator Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran to talk about how Art Labor’s project “Jrai Drew” was made in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

Dear Arlette,
Since first approaching you to take part in this conversation with me, I have been struggling to initiate it. Partly because after I relocated to Mexico, more or less 1000 days ago, my perception of Asia is seemingly more sensitive than ever due to the physical and mental distance. As I was writing to you, I found myself looking between the past and the future, the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western, and what has been unveiled in front of me is a similar but other southern continent. The colonists landed with the missionaries and then left. The anthropologists came but also left. Free trade has arrived, and then what? The historical image orbits a comparative trace in the so-called southern lands in the sense of a Global South, and that appears to be ambiguous in my mind.
A couple of days ago, a critique caught my attention, which is about the current edition of Taipei Biennial You and I don’t live on the same planet curated by Bruno Latour. Written by Kao Jun-Honn, it is directly titled I don’t think “You and I don’t live on the same planet” and has linked the argument through an essay by Jiahui Zeng that debates whether Europe is responsible for the production of theory and Asia is responsible for the production of experience?[1] This dilemma may sound familiar to us in regards to the regions we are originally from or are currently based in. Rethinking the modernism ideology of “the west and the rest,” I often consider if our responsibility is more a response-ability? How, then, to depart from this awareness to re-recognize ourselves? “Instead, it feels like we are trapped on the same planet.” This is how Kao ended his text. Without knowing Kao in person, I would never be able to understand the weight of the verb “trap” that is used in this context.

Back in 2014 in Taipei, I and my colleagues from TCAC (Taipei Contemporary Art Center) set up the “Art organizations’ joint office” opposite the parliament in support of the Sunflower Student Movement. The student protest was against a trade pact with China that would hurt Taiwan’s economy and leave it vulnerable to political pressure from Beijing. The action that initiated the movement took place overnight when students broke into the parliament and occupied it. Within a short time, we gathered a tent and power generator to be on standby on the streets, then contacted a few writers for contributing texts to the campaign. Kao was one of them. Shortly I received his text titled Boai Market that tells the labor history of his mother. The artist was nurtured by the Boai Market where his mother earned a living by selling women’s underwear. Since the 90s, when the age of neoliberalism arrived on our island, domestic products have been unsalable, replaced by cheap underwear imported from China. Kao’s mother lost business, the market collapsed, then she developed Parkinson’s disease and was forced into unemployment.

After 23 days, the protest ended successfully but the text was never published. Two years later, Kao launched the project Boai in the Taipei Biennial. It was a form of live art where the audience had to follow his steps returning to various sites to attend the readings, screenings and talks. Involving long-term research into the places, interwoven with his personal history as one of its residents, the project firstly refers to the existing locale, from the displaced market to many peripheral areas marked by belatedness where also imply all sorts of diseases existing in modern society: dementia, bipolar disorder, depression, Parkinson’s disease, self-abasement, anti-social behavior, borderline personality disorder (BDP), etc. Boai investigates the personal relations in the broken networks and conditions of society to look at the cost of many negotiated exchanges. But, what does economic priority indeed bring to us? Does developmentalism indicate an exit after World War II? What do we learn from modernism to neoliberalism, from the cold war, the post-cold war to the new cold war, to be able to decipher the choke point whether the trade brings the trap or vice versa? Behind this myth of economic transformation, Kao has been trying hard to portray the silhouettes of those aphasias throughout many practices of ‘returning’.

“Did you remember that I mentioned artist Kao Jun Honn was researching the Topa Tribe? The location of the relic is very close to the village you were born.” Before drafting this letter, I happened to spot Kao’s new publication Llyung Topa which is part of his ongoing activist project that began after Boai and is about to reveal the little known history behind Topa, an aboriginal village that was devastated completely by a violent reclamation project during Japanese-occupied period a hundred years ago. It is almost a blank page in the history of resistance. I have never heard about it, neither has my father who is half aboriginal. The dwindling presence of identity does little for recognizing ourselves but says much on the contradiction of who we are. I could understand the loose link that hardly ties my father with his root, not only because he has been living in an urbanized way most of his life, but more to do with what he feels he is. While we are yet to discover our traces, Kao has been uncovering the past trails by tracing them with his feet as he enters mountains, forests, and remains.

Is this a way to unlearn, to step on a path, to repair?

I still remember the first time meeting you, Arlette, in 2016 in Taipei, on our invitation to the conference Common Tasks. So as I know it, the collective Art Labor that you are part of with Thao Nguyen Phan and Truong Cong Tung, has a focus on social and life sciences in various public contexts and locales. And the project Jrai Drew just started then. Is it still ongoing? I always wonder how you and your team find an entrance into the Central Highlands of Vietnam to initiate it. Certainly, it would be a journey not only opening a path to collaborating with those artists and intellectuals from the tribes, but also allowing a different understanding of things and beings by looking at that unvarnished knowledge in Jrai culture. Inspired by Jrai’s belief in the human and the cosmos, Art Labor entered the unknown territory and was challenged with the whole narration which is not received in the world we know. By revisiting the project, I tend to shift from the civilized consciousness towards a frame of including but not limiting the universal perception to a question of our contemporary knowledge. Intending to look into the contradistinction, I was brought to rethink the possibility of how art could apply unlearning by aiming to disrupt what has been taken for granted as a principle in theory and practice of contemporaneity. Perhaps, when discarding or putting aside certain knowledge from being bound to our modernized mindset, freedom to withdraw from the quotidian is gained. This made me wonder if conducting Jrai Dew affects the way Art Labor becomes aware of ethical lines when approaching a different social-cultural group that has been resisting the dominating authority? What measurement do you take to generate dialogue with the origins of the forestland through acting criticality? In terms of the violent changes in colonial history in Vietnam, how do you perceive your position in speaking for the mythic narratives throughout the different contexts in the capitalized world? And in a broader view, reflecting on the journey of discovering Jrai philosophy, do you consider that Art Labor has the ultimate goal to ‘repair’ its absence in the existence of Vietnam’s modernization. If so, how could it be acknowledged and acted?

Dear Jo,
What a long email! I could not read it through the mail app until creating a word document for reviewing your questions to type in my response. When writing on a Word blank page, it somehow makes me nostalgic about the past that was slower and less driven. As if I am drafting a casual note to you about our concerns and contemplations, separate from the modern labor setting through constant email and instant messages, that aims to produce knowledge or commodity. Referring to modern/modernity, we act towards a specific purpose, the rhythm of our actions leads towards the measurement of speed and productivity. We find the optimal way, based on scientificization, neutralization or universalization, to apply to economic growth and thus to social development.

In a country like Vietnam, where wars covered almost the entire history of this country’s several-thousand-year existence, nation-building thus has been an obsession due to its vulnerable state from invasion and destruction. So whenever the situation was a little bit quiet, even pretended so, for example in the early 1960s during the recent separation of North and South Vietnam, each side’s government urged and encouraged their people to labor at most. And the government turned around, sought for Right ideologies and Modern development models, amid the spilling dangerous wave of ​​Cold War. Later, I still remember the late 1990s; in our Geography classes, we had to memorize the location and density of the rich natural resources in Vietnam; hence arouse the pride of our ancestors’ “Golden forest – Silver sea”[2] to find a way to modernize the homeland. During those, we were lectured about the illegal deforestation of the ethnic minority communities, that they burned forests for cultivation. It was their fault that the forests aka our national treasures have gone. I still recall me, a 10-year-old kid, very angry at their anti-science way of farming as destruction. By the early 2000s, the media began to report on the process of the state quickly quelling the riots of ethnic minorities in the Central Highlands—where the Jrai people live—simply for their “reactionary conspiracy.” Perhaps, without my later encounter with Truong Cong Tung’s family and friends in the Central Highlands, I would never understand the cost of the above propaganda for assimilation to speed up modernization through so-called science pedagogy.[3] That pseudo-science depicted the image of a “different” Vietnamese—the other—the ethnic minority communities like the unscientific people who are hurting nature. Combined with the nationalistic spirit, it created the message that the Kinh—the country’s major ethnic group, with a new penetrating free socialist-oriented market—will save both nature and these backward people with more scientific solutions, as well as their cultural traditions in the national discourse of “reinvented heritage.”

I think letting an entire generation, who inherited such pedagogy, unlearn their mentality is never an easy task. Generations born prior to the 1970s and early 1980s were deprived of the dark fate of the post-war. They couldn’t deny modernization, because it was the only way to help daily life out of poverty and hunger. The modernity that Vietnamese are practicing is not quite like what Bruno Latour defines as The First Great Divide[4] where society separates science/nature from culture. It seems that Vietnamese people have pragmatically used this Western-influenced model to quickly improve their lives. Honestly, Art Labor could not have the luxury to slow down, contemplate to practice, and self-organize activities with different communities if Vietnam hadn’t implemented the modernization process. Likewise, when we asked our Jrai closest friend, brother Rcham Dieh, who is willing to answer our most sensitive questions about the relationship between the Kinh and Jrai, whether he is nostalgic about life as before, he said is clearly more comfortable, less hungry and sick. Yet, on the other hand, in every day relationships and judgments about the living realm/fate/spirituality/the formation of all things around, we, no matter Kinh or other ethnic, always rely on the customs percept that never separates man from the universe. So, rational modernization or cosmological beliefs/rituals/customs—the decision is interchangeable, at times even deceitful like the pseudo-science propaganda I mentioned above.

Going back to your questions about the Art Labor, they remind me of the exchange with Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias—my film professor at CalArts, a Dominican filmmaker—about similar ideas between Latin American and our region. I ventured to cite those thoughts with you: One time, Thao Nguyen & Cong Tung, two members of Art Labor, sent me a video of Brother Dieh sitting and singing beside the firelight. Looking at the curious faces of Kinh people around him, Dieh laughed and interpreted his song into Vietnamese: “I love you (female pronoun to male)/ I love you (male pronoun to female)/ Don’t leave each other / You die / I die / One dies first and the other must remember.”

Indeed, at the beginning, it was the death that Art Labor, a group from the Kinh ethnic, was fascinated with the great culture of the Jrai community. To the Jrai, human death is in the material transformation sequence of being’s lives and the natural world within the universe. People die, they morph into cricket, lump of coal, grasshopper, crow, a piece of bone and finally a dewdrop. The dewdrop evaporates into the air, disappears into nothingness. But such nothingness is the beginning of a new cycle of life. Human life belongs to this cycle, appearing in any order of it, no less than any other animal or matter in nature. It is a series of reincarnations but does not repeat the same circle, yet rotates in a helical form, lasting endlessly; even intertwining and breaking in time and space and then continuing further in the universe.

As Glissant’s understanding of the history of non-Western countries, tracing human life in the rotation of the universe order, like the tracing of people origin in Latin American context, is impossible.

It does not follow the filiation in the direction of arrow-like nomadism. This non-principle continuity may initially confuse conventional and logical interpretations. It seems to be too bizarre to draw some certain people nearer, who tend not to follow imagination. It may even advance from people, especially the oppressing group, a violent tendency to suppress it into their established framework. But the more they want it to follow their logic, the more it disobeys because that continuum is overflowing with metamorphic imagination and hybridity. We cannot see through it because it is hidden and revealed variably. Even the utmost effort to fully expose its knowledge will fail.

We—the art collective—borrow the idea of death in the Jrai’s cosmic belief to understand what is happening in the Central Highlands region, where the Jrai community lives alternating with the Kinh like us. It has been 4 years since we decided to go to the Central Highlands—the hometown of a team member—to learn, build relationships and carry out projects with the Jrai community, the neighbors near his family. The folk artists sculpted the statues, we organized celebrations and exhibitions for them in the villages so that relatives and family, friends can come to see and have fun. We made films about the Central Highlands, about the lives of Kinh and Jrai farmers. They went to overseas exhibitions with us. The understanding among people in the group does not lie solely in the language, because in fact, that linguistic gap is still difficult to fill. The beginning of our relationship is the separation—demarcation between urban and rural people, between Kinh people and ethnic minorities, between Vietnamese and Jrai language. After four years, it is reflected in the sharing of the chickens, the eggs, the sculptures, the book, and the trust of them to travel with us. Interestingly, death itself is the beginning of everything. Four years ago, we caught sight of a beautiful tomb on the edge of the forest and then traced the person who carved it. We followed the evaporation breeze of the dewdrop.




  1. This line has been extracted from the title of Jiahui Zeng’s essay Naoki SakaixGe Sun: Europe is responsible for the production of theory and Asia is responsible for the production of experience? The essay is written and published in Chinese and based on the discussions from the lecture by Naoki Sakai and Ge Sun. The event is organized by Inside-Out Art Museum as the program of the exhibition Discordant Harmony (2018).

  2. Is a Vietnamese idiom that honors the country’s treasure of natural resources from the mountains to the coastal regions. During his lifetime, Ho Chi Minh often used this phrase to appeal to national pride.

  3. Modern factors such as electricity—especially hydropower plants and industrial plantations—are considered as science applied in socio-economic development and reform. Therefore, in general education, especially in geography, this kind of information is disseminated at the same time describing bias the indigenous community.

  4. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. by Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 99.


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