the eastern beat

Tra Ngyuen

Artist, Lecturer, Researcher, Designer

Tra Nguyen is a Vietnamese artist who specializes in Media Art and Design. She is currently a doctorate researcher at Budapest's Hungarian University of Fine Arts' Doctoral School. Her work has been presented at the Bucharest Biennale, Archives Bordeaux Metropole (France), Chiang Mai Art Center (Thailand), Women's Museum (Vietnam), Vietnamese National Exhibition of Applied Arts, and other exhibitions and festivals in Asia and Europe.

By observing the transformation of various emerging phenomena in everyday life, her research – serving as a background for her artistic practice – explores the new structures in society, culture and art. She is currently working on an artistic research project about cyberspace, surveillance capitalism, cyber colonialism, and creativity in the age of AI and automation. Her work takes the form of design, film, interactive media, installation, and other forms of expression.

Where are you from and what brought you to Budapest? 

I was born and raised in Vietnam. I moved to study for a master's in Thailand and I spent two years there. After that, I went back to Vietnam and continued my teaching job in an art university. I applied for a PhD program in Budapest and moved here in 2018.

I am a specialist in media art and design. I work both in art and design, it’s a good opportunity for me to work between these two fields. That brings some interesting characteristics in my work, when you first see it you might not be able to clearly identify whether it is art or design.

What are the topics that you are focusing on?

Currently I am focusing on a research-based practice and my topic is related to cyber cultures. I analyze advertising in the age of artificial intelligence and how it affects the society. I focus on the aspect of surveillance capitalism and from the post colonial perspective. I investigate how the political and economic situation of the society is created by data mining and big data industry.

When we first met, you were part of the Parallel Hungary exhibition. What was your piece about?

I created a series of  work related to advertising and data minning in the age of AI, which is my PhD research topic. This piece talks about predictions, the prediction economy actually. 

Big tech giants like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and so on. The data they get is used for the predictions purposes. There are different levels of prediction economy, from the big tech giants to free apps you install on your phone. They investigate personal data to understand their interests, predict their future needs  and then navigate their demand or even create the new demand to fit them. 

In this work I make a connection about the history of predictions. The initial idea of the exhibition was to talk about the future. In the students’ group everybody feels anxiety about the future, because all of the PhD programme students are anxious about their future after the pandemic, the war and the graduation. I feel that the future is something everyone is curious about, and I look at the issue  from the historical aspect. In the course of history, there’s always been a need to know the future. People who had the ability to predict the future were powerful, take prophets or priests in african spiritual practice or monks in buddhist culture for example. In the contemporary world prediction has the same power, that’s why I make the connection between traditional prediction and contemporary prediction. Based on this idea I started working with the group because all of us are from different cultures. I asked them how they felt about their own prediction cultures and fortune telling. I asked my friends to talk about the concept in their cultures, some people connected more than others. They introduced me to the different ways of fortune telling in their cultures and what was interesting was that there are so many connections in the ways of prediction between cultures. I picked several practices of fortune telling from their cultures and linked them with their contemporary counterparts in the form of mobile application. Many people install and use them, it's still a live practice for many people, but they don't know or they don't recognize that these prediction applications collect user data and are used for another purpose, another type of prediction. That's why I called the piece ‘Parallel predictions’. 

Based on your research, how do you think people feel about data gathering in the digital world?

I received different reactions from the people I met. Some of them are really concerned about it, for them using apps or smart devices is a dilemma - Is it really harmful or not? Many people expressed their worries and anxiety and they feel concerned about the cyber world. On the other hand I met few people who said they didn't care so much. I take into account that my study group are people in the academic world, I'm not sure what answer I would get from people from other social groups.

What is your opinion about it?

For me it's really crucial to understand that it can be very harmful and frightening if we don't have the consciousness about it, because technologies go further than the conscience of people. If we don't understand it we are just unconscious followers; and it leads us to the position of exploited subjects.This concept is linked to my previous work called cyber colonialism, where I made connections with my own society, subject to colonialism before. In the early 20th century, people bringing technology were seen as  very powerful and it was perceived as something from another world, as if brought from a god, it was frightening. It seemed very powerful - how people can shoot from a distance and many people die or that a train is just moving without any animals. This was perceived almost as a miracle. 

I have a feeling that for many people data gathering is seen as part of everyday life and they often see it as something harmless and think that ‘so what if they know my shopping preferences’ for example.

Actually it's much more harmful, the data being gathered is so much more than that. It navigates the way you understand the world, political views, they know your interests and can manipulate your political election choices.  In any kind of election program there is so much fake news that is targeted at you to strengthen your beliefs in the wrong direction, based on the data gathered about you. This can affect you on much deeper and more dangerous levels than just the commercial aspect of it.

On the other hand, from a commercial perspective your interests are manipulated for you to buy things that are not really necessary and occupy your life wanting things you don’t really need.

Adults might be able to look at it in a more critical way, we can understand it, but how about the youngest inhabitants of the digital world, how would you try to convey the message to them? What's your approach when  trying to explain its dangers to your own children?

I think education is the key because they are the next generation. The way to educate them needs to be very careful, they have more access to the digital world than the generations before them. Propaganda will not work for children, the education must be practical. I think art is an important tool to educate kids. I feel here in Europe people have better knowledge than in South Asia, where educational and cultural conditions are different; and children here in Europe have more opportunities to access education through museums, art or culture. I feel that European cultural sectors are more focused on social issues and bring them into art and the young generations access them more easily. When you bring kids into a project they will understand it more deeply than just through what they hear from their parents or teachers. I think with kids everyday practice on how to balance their lives is very important. They need to  know technology is necessary, but they need to know about the history of the human being, where we come from, that we lived close to nature before and we still need to stay connected to it. If the kids forget about it they will lose the balance. I think it’s good if both school and cultural institutions help them in achieving this balance and make it easier for them to understand the world today. They need to compare and contrast both worlds - the ‘primitive’ way of being close to nature vs. the high-tech world. 

How do you disconnect from the noise of the digital world and connect with nature?

I feel it’s really good for me to have a strategy to keep the balance. I work a lot with the computer, with the academic writings, research and doing media art, it’s good for me to go to nature from time to time, I leave the screen and the information overload behind and I feel calm, I feel like I wake up my senses touching the leaves, animals, feel the smells, feel the hotness of the air. I feel the multidimension of feelings is different when you are experiencing that than in front of a computer screen.

On one hand it's nature that brings us back to our essence, but on the other hand - as you showed in your piece for the Parallel Hungary exhibition - there’s tradition. I can imagine many people who download the fortune telling apps on their smartphones might not realize how old the tradition behind it is. Do you feel that people might be a bit disconnected from it as well?

Especially I think the new generations, if a practice is not alive they don’t know about it, they don’t know about the past.  Everything is in the form of information on the screen and the physical context is lost. That’s why I think art is important to bring back, to generate the discussion of how you need to understand the root of the things. It’s really difficult to bring this in a tangible way and here art is useful. 

You say that art is key in making that connection, but how do you encourage people to go to a museum or gallery and actually see it? Not everybody might know it exists or where to look for it.

It’s a big issue, not only mine but of cultural sectors. If art and culture are supported enough by governments I think this will work. If you have enough consideration, otherwise your work is invisible. The question is whether society thinks that culture is something needed for the human being - if yes, then it will work. But some societies or governments don’t think culture is important, the life of the people will be poorer. It’s really up to the societies really. I have seen this work very well in Western Europe, the way they create an art show is really different in my own country or even in Eastern Europe. There you can feel they pay more attention to it and they really work on the connection between the public and the art scene; they treat it seriously, as something important for society. In the West, when artists work on a project they are paid for it, as they invest their knowledge and energy in it. Here I attend many exhibitions without any remuneration, but what we do is not a hobby, we do it because we believe it’s useful for society. In the long term it cannot work this way as the artists need to support themselves. 

The art world is complex and diverse as well, I'm not saying art should go in this or that direction, but many artists are doing things distant from social issues, they do them to serve their own self expression and their own feeling without any purpose for society. I don't say it’s good or bad but this is maybe one of the reasons society looks at art in a certain way, thinking this is nothing serious. 

What is your view on the art world in Hungary and how do you connect with it?

In Budapest I feel the traditional art is still very strong, focused on classical or modern art. There’s a difference between modern and contemporary art. Here the modernist style is still very strong and it occupies the scene. People who create contemporary art are still struggling and often need to move away from Hungary to practice their way. The cultural sector is not very supported and it’s still difficult for people working in it.

For me the school was a very good way to connect to the art world, but it’s very difficult for me to get connected with the local society, for many reasons. Firstly, there’s the language barrier and secondly the openness of the society. I feel maybe in countries with a bigger number of expats it’s easier. I try a lot to get out from only the school context, but it’s not easy. I see even Hungarian artists struggle a lot to find their own place, so it’s much harder for foreigners. 

I think the difficulty is the beauty in itself, if you experience it you get another thing. I think how we develop ourselves is not about the achievements, but about the experience you get in the process. 

How do you connect art with teaching at the university? How are you trying to tackle the uneasy situation of contemporary art through teaching?

It is a struggle to make a change as the environment is still very conservative and there’s few progressive teachers around me. I'm a bit like a freedom fighter so I don't mind changing it bit by bit. I always introduce a new practice for students or I accept some progressive ideas of the students and I encourage them to see the world and do more interesting things. Teaching and practicing need to go together, if the teacher doesn't create new things then how can students create new things? This way you have new knowledge for the students and for yourself. It gives students motivation to develop and you gain their trust. Many of the teachers at my university have not created anything new for 20-30 years; they just replay the same thing. Some of them are simply lazy and some of them believe in the old ways. But the young generation lives in a different context and they need something different. They will lose motivation for art if it’s lagging behind, I think. Art should reflect the beat of society. 

What is your plan for the future?

Once I finish the PhD course I want to go on with the project, I have some bigger plans related to it, but it requires bigger funding as it would need an AI system and around 2 - 3 years to feed the data. I'm applying here and there to get the support. As contemporary art in Vietnam is not so developed, I need to look for foreign contacts to continue with the project. 

As I'm interested in data mining and artificial intelligence, I think Silicon Valley might be my next destination.

Read more about Tra on her website

September 2022

Copyright and photos: Anna Jopp

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