Will Pham was awarded the Gasworks Fellowship to attend a residency at Hangar, Lisbon, Portugal from May- August 2015. The following text is a short extract from ongoing discussions with other artists and researchers during this period. 

Will Pham is an artist based in London. His work is interested in architecture and the body. Christabelle Peters is a researcher and academic. Previous work includes a monograph on Angolan Cuban identity.

Conversation Extract

We are sitting outside having coffee on one of the viewtop hills in Lisbon. It is August and nearing the end of the trip.

C: There are lots of things I love about being here but some people have no idea of Cova da Moura in Lisbon. Most of the people live in bleak tower blocks away from the center. I deal with marginal communities so I would go as part of my research. I can’t profess to know Lisbon unless I put myself out in awkward situations and observe things. What I saw you naturally gravitating toward was not the shanty town. The quintessential experience was the merging of queer Lisboa & Africa cont festival: ideas around queer identity, culture and the whole postcolonial question. I thought you would work in the interstices of the two. You voguing would raise all kinds of questions and open up so many things that aren’t even approached here. The use of dance has social ramifications about sexual preference, marginalization and ethnicity.

W: Yes I agree. I did a voguing workshop as part of the festival because I wanted to learn a non-verbal language for the body. It related to a continuation of previous performance to camera work using gesture and its relationship with identity, diaspora and movement. The workshop was a very liberating experience as it made me think of my body as desirable and forthright. I filmed myself walking in the studio as improvisational tests to control my own image. Most people wont recognise why I would want to do this but it relates to creating a sense of self-esteem or something in reaction to the stereotypes and constant regulation of Asian bodies. Asian people are also seen as the silent minority, depoliticised and not really taken seriously, for example asian men are extremely demasculinised and so I wanted to address that. Of course it gets complicated when I talk about queer sexual capital as an asian gay man...I thought my body moving in relationship with the image from Terras da Costa, looking back at the camera, and moving in a way that was occupying space, implicitly drew upon ideas from the workshop. I was still working through what would it mean for me to vogue in that space or merely exist out of place and out of context historically and geographically- I am a vietnamese british person performing ‘in’ a shanty town that relates to Portugals colonial history and I am trying to think about alliance with the French colonial history of both Africa and Vietnam. I do see my body as material and I chose to expose myself as it related with the skin of the photographic tactile material and my own body as someone from Vietnamese ancestry as well. Even walking around is coded because you are from a history of war and still present. There are parallels walking around Lisbon as there are physical repercussions from colonial history such as where people live, road names, economics & race and why there are shantytowns. I read Sarte’s prologue to Fanon’s wretched of the earth which included that dance within that context as being a misdirected energy from the colonized in resisting the colonizer as it is a form of alienated resistance, one person resisting as opposed to a group. If this were to be extended to my filmed performances it would be a problem. I was performing to camera in previous work because I wanted to see myself on screen in my own way instead of misrepresentation of Asian people in the media, more specifically images from the Vietnam War. This could be a way to react but in foresight that is quite alienating too.

C: Ok thats interesting. Lets talk about the video work you showed, ‘Act 2’, where you walk around in the studio half naked, looking back at the camera in an attitudedy kind of way..

W: Yes that piece was drawn from reading Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and Judiths Butlers notion of performativity. I realize most Portuguese learn western culture through American TV, which portrays minority groups in racist stereotypes so I wanted to directly draw upon DIY filmmaking to put myself into the screen and control my self image. If my work had been more in your face, the viewer would have had to address issues about intersection as a bridge between queer and postcolonial theory. My way of working, even the concrete panels, go about dealing with these subjects in abstracted loose ways. This relates to the term ‘queer space’ as something slippery and how it can be stretched to include fields beyond itself. Its simmering underneath as research, unfinished and that’s why it’s still a work in progress.

C: I wonder if the voguing workshops and the exaggeration of gestures relate to the action you performed of walking in an everyday way such as Bruce Nauman’s video walking around a perimeter of a square in an exaggerated manner and how does that relate to voguing. For me the voguing has to do with the experience of blackness that is completely alien to the Portuguese approach to blackness and its power dynamic. So when you think about the black experience here and what you’ve experienced, afro house, the club Luanda, its different in terms of a black postcolonial experience abroad. Even something as simple as voguing being performed as an individual and within competitions make a stark contrast with the couples dance relating to intimacy and hetereonormativity. It would be interesting to look further at different dance specialisms such as kudouro and different social dances, movement and appropriation of social experiences.

W: Yes I am interested in social and cultural experiences filtered through dance. It’s all about social experience and being empowering. Dance comes out of society and how men’s relationships are with women, what is intimacy, what kind of movements or gestures you can make from there. Voguing instantly makes you feel more gay because you’ve got to channel something. It started in New York 80s, by the black latino gay community claiming space in a hostile environment, building community and taking control of their own image.

C: They’re bringing up the fact that they are excluded and inserting themselves in the Vogue magazine discourse. A lot of it was framing, to do with representation: look at this part of me, hands, ass, legs, face. It was a riposte to the lack of representation in magazines by appropriating the conventions used...

W: ...And turning it into dance and in dance you can masquerade.

C: Yes thats fascinating too as masquerade culture in colonial times goes way back to slavery. Masquerade has to do with carnival, liminal times where the social order gets turned upside down. For example, a black slave could dress up as a white mistress, white mask, and take on their mannerisms. You’re not taking their power, its more subversive than that. It’s a realization that everything is performance. There are ways of performing white or performing black. It shows you have understood that. You start moving like them to show that you can read them, the codes, the games and that’s very subversive because the dominator wants to think that you’re not thinking, that you’re not realizing this stuff. It’s mocking.

W: Its not mimicry?

C: Mimicry is when you have to bleach your skin, straighten your hair, talk a certain way in order to mimic how the dominating culture does things in order to be accepted. Carnival is to mock, its to play. It’s to subvert in a non-threatening way because if it were in a threatening way they would kill you. So you have to couch it with a little bit of rhythm having fun, dancing, playing supposedly but in the community you know that you are critiquing.  It’s taking a bit of power for a few days during carnival times but it’s partly also about the mask used in Africa to channel ancestral power.

W: You can have temporary power but not disrupt the entire order?

C: I believe culture is what ends up changing politics.

W: Hmm you have to demand your equality through action as opposed to a given. You’re constantly working against power.

C: Power never concedes of power. What I was hoping you’d get interested in is the Asian experience in Lisbon and the postcolonial and how they fit in this society. There is potential to figure out why that is and what this community experiences using tools from anthropology. It seems like you learnt alot about yourself as a person, as an artist, about residencies and how you want it to be, testing yourself out in all different situations. If something about Lisbon captured your soul you would have learned the language because culture is embedded in language.

W: Yes I did try to have lessons in Portuguese but it doesnt share any root language with Vietnamese or English which made me think about how history and language shapes our experiences today and the possible relationships we can build/not build with others because of it. There are however people from Macau, a former colony of Portugal who can speak portuguese fluently. It made me think about language and colonialism and the current realities existing today. Language is something I am trying to grapple with in my art practice and performances- I usually am silent and just performing gestures. I would like to develop ideas around voice but for now, I tried to deal with this inability to speak portuguese as a productive position to maintain a distance, a constant estrangement and to allow the viewer to focus upon my choice of choreography and movement.

© Will Pham