Activist and curator Đinh Nhung and artist Gabby Miller talk about whether the term ‘queer’ is itself useful, whether we should be done with rainbows and being pigeonholed by labels.
Queer art and LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender, Queer and Intersex) activism repel each other as much as they attract. The point where they meet – for either heated debates or productive agreements – makes for an interesting conversation to eavesdrop on.
Interview, Images: Fabiola Buchele ●
ACTIVISM AND THE CONTEMPORARY QUEER ART SCENE
Đinh Nhung: I just get bored of the propaganda.
Gabby Miller: When art is used by NGOs?
We need to move on from the rainbow thing. A lot of NGOs and affiliations use it, and this makes us popular but at the same time, too much of it renders it meaningless.
Đinh Nhung: Yeah. We need to move on from the rainbow thing. A lot of NGOs and affiliations use it, and this makes us popular but at the same time, too much of it renders it meaningless. We were doing an exhibition in Cambodia and realised that it was so hard for our colleagues there to move beyond the rainbow.
Gabby Miller: Go beyond the global rainbow. It’s so sad because I love rainbows, as in nature, in general you know (laughs) – but the pride rainbow has the danger of erasing local context and history…
Đinh Nhung: I think some great NGOs have been wasting a lot of money doing rainbow art and I don’t like it. I want something in the middle. Not straight like I am doing it, just for art but also not just to communicate the NGOs’ idea of what defines LGBTQI. I want something in between. Just offer people material that they can interpret in different ways.
Gabby Miller: That is totally thinking like an artist. For me there isn’t a separation. I resisted all the terms saying ‘I am not an artist, I am not queer, I am not anything’, but then I see it’s useful to identify as an artist and queer. But I still resist it.
This is a weird little point for me where I don’t want to be pigeonholed and at the same time I wonder if maybe I don’t need to separate the two as much. There is not a deep divide between the queerness and activism, they are so intertwined for me. You are making art, that’s a form of activism, that’s a way of thinking differently.
Đinh Nhung: I am reluctant to call myself activist.
Gabby Miller: Yeah, me too, but mostly because I haven’t done enough yet. I haven’t earned the title.
Đinh Nhung: We stand up for what we believe in and I think although we don’t want to admit it in that way we are [activists].
Gabby Miller: It’s really interesting you know. It’s actually this form of resistance, you don’t have to call it that, but it is a form of resistance not to follow whatever you’re supposed to follow.
Gabby Miller: I see the project as very open, with a bottom-up approach. It’s not there for other people, it’s not there for the government or the society as a whole. It’s not about bettering the whole of society. It’s about investigating and bettering the lives that queer people are living. What are you doing with your own life?
It’s not a forced marginalisation but it’s a project to build a sense of community, for people to get strength and joy from being together.
And not to say that you are not part of society or that we have to be outcast. It’s not a forced marginalisation but it’s a project to build a sense of community, for people to get strength and joy from being together. Queer Forever! promotes an open and ongoing dialogue. There is also a strong thread of unearthing Queer/LGBTQI history in Vietnam,
Đinh Nhung: I think Queer Forever! reaches artists who are more open and different. But for many people in other marginalised groups they are not lucky like that. We need a balance between NGO work and festivals like these.
Gabby Miller: Yes! It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
When NGOs concentrate on problems or specific issues, they omit a lot of points of views and experiences.
Đinh Nhung: Right. The Queer Festival! gives space for questioning our own work as well as that of organisations. That is really necessary in this context. Sometimes the NGOs work so much on the ‘right’ language or something very specific like that. When NGOs concentrate on problems or specific issues, they omit a lot of points of views and experiences. So, activities like this, a festival like this gives alternatives, maybe another…
Gabby Miller: …just a different view, not opposing, not alternative even, but allowing for another narrative.
Đinh Nhung: Some people especially very young ones, first when they are looking for a community usually get their material from an NGO and they read the material and they say ok I am gay I am lesbian, and they go to the activism that is organised by the NGO. But after a while they become more critical. And they search for more, for other, for things like we are doing.
Gabby Miller: That is just so interesting.
Đinh Nhung: You should look at the age of the activists. You can see that they move from this to the other.
Gabby Miller: Do we do this beautiful thing or this larger social thing? I really need the pocket of beauty. It’s not that the other stuff isn’t important, but if I don’t have the pocket of beauty then what’s the point? You have to have some place where you feel safe and beautiful or can go beyond how shitty it can feel to be different, a celebration of the otherness. You can be complex and have a good time.
Đinh Nhung: I think we need both. Doing something to change societal perceptions and attitudes towards differences and to challenge existing norms, but we also need some places that allow creating subcultures which I always feel so thrilled about. Like vocabulary, practices… that society does not understand and might feel weird about. We don’t need mainstream or popular acceptance for that.
THE TERM QUEER
Gabby Miller: What use do you think the term queer has?
Đinh Nhung: I think it’s useful because it covers more experiences and differences and… I am reluctant to use identities which are often too formal. Take myself as an example, if somebody asks me [if I am gay] then I am not, but maybe I am straight maybe I am not straight. But if they ask me if I am queer: Yes I am queer. I feel queer is more…
Gabby Miller: … more open.
Đinh Nhung: Open, yes. However, translating it into Vietnamese, is very difficult.
I remember translating an article and I did not know what word to translate it to. Kì quái,dị biệt and quái bị are negative. One translator simply translated it to ‘different’ [khác biệt]. All sort of different are queer so that makes sense. There were different translations like ‘of the path’ [lệch pha], but the communities didn’t like them and in the end we went with ‘different’. That was before we met Thanh [ ed note: artist and founder of Queer Forever] who introduced the term queer.
Queer gives you a way to talk about something that outside of the norm.
Gabby Miller: Queer gives you a way to talk about something that outside of the norm. I am in a moment of trying to reconcile, I don’t want to be in opposition, but I actually feel like I am.
I think a lot about if it necessarily has to be an opposition between LGBTQI global activism and queer modes of expression and activism. I’m so done with the dominant narratives of LGBTQI activism in the U.S., the grand push towards normalisation and #LOVEWINS, without radical politics of inclusion and fighting oppression of all kinds. Globally, I am seeing this #LOVEWINS narrative in translation, this non-profit language is neo-liberal. It’s in step with global capitalism: we will define, we make it palpable, safe and that is this eraser of all these things that have existed before. People have been living in queer ways long before the terms introduction.
This article is part of the & Of Other Things special queer edition created for the Queer Forever! Festival organised by Nhà Sàn Collective. To find out more about their events and program visit their Facebook Page.