Cyber-Thinker Minh Nguyen on Political Art in 2016 and the Nature of Digital Resistance

Talking electronic civil disobedience with Town Hall’s artist-in-residence and creator of Chat Room.

Minh Nguyen, arts organizer and Town Hall’s current artist-in-residence, has spent the past year investigating “how the Internet has changed art” in her quarterly forum Chat Room. Mixing taped interviews with live discussion from curated panels of experts, Chat Room has touched on everything from digital ownership to net aesthetics. Amid the continuing fallout from Donald Trump’s election, Nguyen and I sat down to chat about the topic of her final upcoming Chat Room, electronic civil disobedience and art as resistance.

Has the election changed your relationship to the Internet? When I started this project at the beginning of the year, I had this optimistic drive to explore all these niches and things people have made on the Internet that could teach us more. I think it’s funny because as the year progressed and everybody had the rug of ideology pulled out from beneath them, everyone went “You know what? Maybe the Internet is a horrible place that cements all of our biases.” You know, fascists also make memes, the alt-right have aesthetic Tumblrs, and they’re way better and more effective at it than us. All these things people talk about as good inherently—art or technology, or this old idea of “This machine kills fascists,” people have to realize these are tools a lot of different people use to get their message across. Nobody understood aesthetics better than the Nazis. You have to acknowledge that, or the optimism is really irresponsible.

Do you buy into the “bubble” or “echo-chamber” critique of social media? I do. I’ve been thinking a lot about this too, especially because early peer-to-peer media, which became the social-media platforms that we have now, actually sort of arose as a counter to fascism or traditional media. I imagine they thought you would be able to find your community of like-minded peers, and that is advantageous if you also were aware of the fact that you were creating this really specific community for yourself. I think people forget that when they look online and see their feed or RSS—that it’s this really specific feed you’ve created for yourself.

How do you think we can break out of that? It’s hard to say what you could do different. I’ve been thinking about that idea in terms of politically engaged art that is gaining popularity right now.

Like what? Where somebody makes a screenprint that says “Police Brutality Is Bad!” Then they show it in a gallery, and it gets written up. People want that kind of engagement, but at the same time I wonder if it’s preaching to the choir or what people call “affirmative work,” where you’re affirming what people already know and therefore cementing this bubble in real life too, because the people who would come out to engage with this at all are probably already on the same level as you. I’m not criticizing anyone’s desire to create work like that, but I am wondering about the effectiveness or the resisting quality of that art.

The BBC documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has been really critical of artists and art in general after the election for “retreating into individualism” and “politically ineffective self-expression,” something he levels at social media too. Do you agree with that? Yeah, I do! This individualism idea is really interesting, because in thinking about this idea of resistance and how artists and technologists sort of fit into it, I was thinking about how artists have evolved from being a private monk or something in olden times, to, after the Enlightenment, being this ultimate vanguard for ideas and thought, and this symbol for free thought—which, with the onset of social media, becomes this entrepreneurial model, which, with the technologists, belong[s] in this creative class that a lot of mythologizing happens around. The idea of the person with inherent talent and drive changing the world.

The idea of the heroic individual. Yeah, totally. I think people conflate supporting the artists with holding them up as this individual vanguard. It’s upholding this idea of scarcity or meritocracy.

How so? In opposition to community organizers, if an artist makes a show about prison abolition or a social issue, you’d hear that artist’s name first, and I think that’s a really specific thing to the arts or creative class. You know, “This artist is here to talk to you about prison abolition.” Community organizers don’t have that same name recognition, really, even if they’ve been talking about these issues forever. But with the mythologizing of artists and technologists, this individuality gets venerated, [and] that is in such opposition to the collective efforts and ends of organizing. There’s such an ideological opposition when artists want to effect social change, because social change requires you to work collectively and share unglamorous work.

Do you still buy this idea that art can change the world then? I don’t know. It’s weird that I don’t have an answer to that. I think that whatever social issues artists are raising, community organizers and activists have been raising those issues for way longer, and I’d love to see artists work more closely with those communities, or do better at giving credit to the thoughts and ideas those activists brought up first. I’d like to see more collaboration, and more artists listen to and give credit to those communities. I’m not interested in artwork that’s trying to invent the wheel or invent a new solution to a social problem as an ends in a silo. It’s like, you obviously have good visual skills, but that doesn’t mean you’re equipped to talk about these complex social issues that have existed for some 400 years.

One thing I’ve been thinking about is the early Facebook and Twitter revolutions—Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Both of those made a splash and were effective at organizing large groups of people to challenge power and resist, but the failure of both was articulating what came next. Would you say that’s a fair assessment? I was talking to Matthew Adeiza the other day, I recorded a small clip of him for the next Chat Room, he’s an advisor on the Digital Activism Research Project at UW. They study digital activism from all around the world, including totalitarian governments. He was sort of saying that too—that really strong social media campaigns tend to articulate a clear goal and have a unified message around that. I do agree and understand that that’s how you get traction, but I also sort of believe in the unknown. I’ve been thinking about Occupy a lot lately, and why Occupy was amazing was it was just a populist movement of people saying “this is not working for 99 percent of people in the world, we have to unite against exploitation, and if we don’t, we’re complicit in that exploitation.” But they didn’t really have a vision. I think that led to its demise, but it lasted so long for a movement where people just identified a problem and were okay with not finding a solution. I think I, politically, am okay with not thinking of a direct alternative to replace something right away, because I believe true democracy would require a distribution of resources and care and a whole network of people working together in a way that we don’t yet know how to do. It’s kind of that effort in the redistribution I’m interested in—I’m not in a rush to do it wrong.

What do you think about the digital resistance movements immediately following Trump’s election? I think it’s been alienating to be a person of color and an immigrant and see everyone around you acting like state-sanctioned violence is going to start next year. Examples of this would be when people were freaking out about the Muslim registry when we’ve had the no-fly list under Obama. That’s made me step back a bit. There’s a lot of art that’s a little too fast to mystify Obama—cute memes with him and Biden, just kind of forgetting he’s also deported more people than any other president has. That’s why I’ve been retreating into community meetings people were going to hold anyway regardless of who won. There’s urgency in the room, but it lacks this performative affect of tears that I feel is a very white liberal thing. “Well, Trump got elected, but we’re still dealing with this.”

Have you followed all these critiques of identity politics on social media post-election? I have, but I don’t really know what people mean by identity politics, do you?

It’s hard to parse out “identity politics” from what’s just the ongoing fight for basic civil rights. I don’t like the phrase, but I also don’t know what people are talking about! When the right talks about identity politics, they’re probably talking about “Oh no, everyone’s queer! Liberal media is making everyone demand gender-neutral bathrooms, what a low priority issue!” I think that’s obviously messed up, but to me, identity politics is also a real thing on the left to critique. I think of publications like Dazed Digital—publications that are left-leaning and identitarian who are like, “Look At These People of Color Musicians!” Sort of recognizing that people are interested in these conversations, but using it to generate more circulation and revenue for their own benefit under the guise of inclusion.

The sort of commodification of identity. Totally. Something I think you could tie back to the internet too—people have mistaken representation for a political analysis or a political alliance. It’s like, what I demand from my publications is more people who look like me, and I think that should be a part of the conversation, but that can’t be the end of it.

The first thing that comes to mind is, when councilmember Debora Juarez, who is Latina/Indigenous, came out in defense of the police bunker, people felt betrayed because her identity supposedly meant she would automatically oppose it. I think when we demand representation as a political ends, what results is H&M being like, “Look at us, we represented everyone in our ads! Trans people can wear our clothes! Anybody can and should buy our clothes!” We have all these political demands, but all the sudden if more state agents or cops are POC, everything’s cool, and we forget our original demands. When we see more representation from people who have been historically oppressed, we just assume their race politics will override their desire to uphold the state.

So, final question—has Trump’s election made you want to retreat from cyberspace? Retreating sounds nice. I think I started out at the beginning of 2016 thinking, “the internet holds huge potential for being a democratic leveling field,” which is how people who created the internet thought of it too.

The sort of West Coast techno-utopianism of the ‘90s. Yeah, totally, how they were adapting ideas from counterculture movements in the ’70s and trying to implement them through technology. Honestly, my optimism in that had been waning since before the election. I set out at the start of the year to explore how the internet has changed everything, thinking it would all be good, and not that it’s all necessarily bad now, but it’s not the God-send I thought it was, or even simply a neutral tool—it’s an extension of all of our messed up relationships with other people. A direction I’ve veered away from is studying only what’s happening right now—which is what everyone else seems to be doing. Everyone saying “we will never again be blindsided! Look at who [Trump] put in his cabinet three hours ago!” This hyper-churning of the news. Now I’m more interested in looking at history and what’s happened in the past and learning from that instead. Chat Room, Town Hall, 1119 Eighth Ave., / Free. All ages. 7:30 p.m. Thurs., Dec. 15.