The lights click off. We’re sitting in the dark facing a flat-screen TV, waiting for the video to start. The scene opens to the exterior of a suburban home at night. As the camera pans slowly up towards the lit square of an upstairs bedroom window, the stylized text of the work’s title appears in the centre of the screen: Turbo. The sounds of a revving car engine accompany the text, which is also the namesake of the fictional character played by the artist, Alvin Luong. Luong’s work is a unique combination of sincerity and satire, of political resistance and mainstream consumerism; in short, he is capable of weaving extremes together into complex yet accessible forms that undermine the way in which we understand contemporary video art.
My first impression of Luong’s work is disobedient, in the best possible sense of the word. His repurposing of classical narrative structure and populist aesthetics within his more recent video works such as Turbo (2018), Bidding War (2016) and The Young Comrade (2018) have proven that working from a more conventional approach can also be a successful technique for the usually more abstract and austere medium of video art. There is an incredible magnetism in Luong’s videos, the familiar yet quirky nature of his personas and their stories act merely as a catalyst for the highly political themes in the work, such as the current economic struggle of middle-class North America, the literal masking of identity in a technologically surveilled world, as well as the artist’s role in bridging the division of knowledge and power to stimulate radical change within the proletariat class.
After watching the first edit of Turbo with Luong at his temporary studio space at the Roundtable Residency in Toronto in July of this year, we discussed the video’s potential narrative trajectory. Since then, I talked to Luong about Youtube, realistic modes of production as an emerging artist in Toronto, as well as the urgency of the political in contemporary art.
my current practice can be thought of as a progression towards a populist mode of production that is not far removed from the ideological drives of historical movements such as Dada, Constructivism and Socialist Realism. I feel less like a proper visual artist and more like a propagandist
Your practice has seemed to streamline itself over the past few years, having previously been more photo and installation-based and has since become more strictly video-based. How do you find your creative process has changed when looking back at past works? And how do you understand your current one?
Streamlining is a flattering way to put it. The changes to my process are for both pragmatic and ideological reasons. On the more pragmatic side, I don't have access to an orthodox studio nor super cheap affordable printing that facilitated my earlier practice. This became an issue while producing the work for my show at PLATFORM Centre (Winnipeg) in May 2017. The show consisted of photographs that replicated 1950’s and 60’s Western modernist sculptures, with some pieces measuring up to 8 by 9 feet. From my tiny home 'studio’—which is a desk—I was approximating how things would look in the gallery. For me, this was not an adequate way to continue working unless I committed to renting a physical studio, which isn't sustainable in Toronto, especially when you're an artist and proletariat. I don't want to work just to have the space to work and store my work. It was at this time that I was also working on narrative video pieces which are much more compatible with my means of living. A camera, a few hard drives, neither of which are really necessary to make video, are still a lot more affordable than renting space in the city. Instead of siphoning my capital to landlords, I find investing in equipment and tools that I can use for my projects is a more rewarding trade-off. It's a way of owning your means of production as an artist.
Working in these constraints helped me generate a more holistic approach to think about what I do. We can follow an orthodox medium-based description of my practice, i.e. “my practice was photo and installation and is now video,” however I think the most appropriate descriptor is that I create personas and narratives. They are my ‘mediums’ per se. I still work with photo, and I have plans to continue working in installation, but they must still fit into the integrated universe of my personas and narratives. Thinking in these terms meant I had to observe and work within the immediate culture, society, and politics that constitute my life. In my earlier works my focus was heavily constrained on art, a field I had been trained to think about, and my new work has almost nothing to do with art in the canonical sense.
This leads me to the most important reason that has emerged from my mode of production: the ideological one. Utilizing personas and narratives in a film format means that I work with the most common form of mass-produced culture. We can readily absorb, think and feel through a narrative conveyed by a persona on video. In other words, my medium is the arena in which politics and aesthetics are so commonly distributed. I also felt that it became essential for my videos to deal and operate in the politics and aesthetics that affect many people. My current practice can be thought of as a progression towards a populist mode of production that is not far removed from the ideological drives of historical movements such as Dada, Constructivism and Socialist Realism. I feel less like a proper ‘visual artist’ and more like a propagandist!
In both your collaborative film works such as Bidding War (2016) with Ivana Dizdar and solo project Turbo (2018), the videos are defined through their astute use of narrative structure and satire. What inspires you to create characters and worlds?
I can only speak for myself. Narrative structure seemed like a way to communicate to an audience without being patronizingly didactic. Personas seem like a way to make the narrative easily deliverable. Together it fulfilled a means to create an artwork that could approach this sense of a populist aesthetic.
Narrative that is delivered through a persona is a basic communication strategy. Its terms are understood by so many, especially when it takes the form of a video. This combination is specific to the distribution of politics, propaganda, and maintaining the status quo. In this way, it made sense for me to work in the 'material’ that constitutes this kind of civic engagement or disengagement. I hope that working this way could be a bettering of a political art or an art-that-is-political because it doesn't rely on the more convoluted language system of art. Art speak is an exclusionary tool to divide and actively alienate lower classes from the bourgeoisie, who most often have the least radical potential and the most conservative ideals.
The characters (Alvin Luong the Car Dealership Magnate and Brett Matthews) in these two works also have particular relationships with cars. Tell me more about the connection that vehicles or car culture have in association with their identities?
Both characters have a fascination with cars as symbols of power, masculinity, and consumer culture. As cultural objects, the high-performance vehicles are catered to the tastes of the working-class (characterised by low economic power and low access to legitimate high-brow, or bourgeois, culture) and the nouveau riche (characterised by high economic power but low access to high-brow culture). In terms of high-brow culture these cars are seen as ‘bad taste’ because of their ostentatiousness.
In Bidding War, the protagonist character that I play who runs the sales for a fictional luxury car company and embodies the nouveau riche. This character is involved in a bidding war for a commercial property with a white bourgeois art dealer as the rival bidder. I also played an unpaid art intern character who worked for the art dealer. So the combination of my two characters in Bidding War became a question of gatekeeping within art—especially at the highest levels which are still restricted to bourgeoisie and whiteness. In Turbo the protagonist is based on working-class boys and men who post videos on their YouTube channels of them obsessing over sports cars.
Your various personas always seem very self-aware in the presence of the “camera”, or at least give the allusion of such, such as speaking on stage, singing emotional solos or speaking a monologue. Do you feel this awareness is intentional or more a result of the Youtube-savvy age in which we live?
Before I jump behind (and in front) of the camera, most of my shots are pre-planned on storyboards. The abundance of camera-facing shots in my videos are drawn like that, so I usually go off of what I pre-planned for each scene when it's time to film. When I draw my scenes out on storyboards I think of them in terms of portraiture. Which doesn't 'date’ the self-awareness of my work to a particular historicized reading of the present and recent past (i.e. post-internet)
Most of the source material for my work comes from YouTube. For example, the inspiration behind Turbo comes from encountering videos of boys making vlogs about the car noises that they perform with their mouths. I suppose they wanted to post these videos because it’s a cool hobby and they wanted to connect with other people who do the same. The other inspiration comes from clips that I found of a failed ‘80s cartoon called Turbo Teen, which became a short-lived internet meme. Aside from that, Turbo relies heavily on a ‘low-fi’ green screen set-up with the backdrops coming from YouTube. So when my character is driving in Turbo, I am mostly using mundane video footage that people post of their daily commutes on the highway.
Do we operate in a language and aesthetic system that is mostly understood in bourgeoisie circles? If we do, why do we do it knowing that radical potential is forfeited? Doing so makes the artist and curator the gatekeepers in the larger macro view of class relations in capitalism.
When we had a studio visit, you mentioned how you were intrigued about producing Turbo with as few technical means as possible, meaning you filmed the work using ‘hacks’ like performing in front of the television in lieu of a green screen. Tell me more about the significance of low-production in relation to Turbo.
With Turbo I was trying to make the most out of what little I have or have access to. The film set is my parents’ home and a lot of the special effects came from me filming action or outdoor sequences in front of their television. There was only one scene that was filmed in a green screen studio, which was at the Toronto Public Library, so it was still within my means of access. This, in turn, became important to Turbo, which a decade after the great economic recession of 2007 and 2008, now ten years later acts as a commentary of sorts, especially as current and future economic prospects remain low for working people. My utilization of the home as the film set was a way to embody the lived reality of the politics that Turbo is about.
Maybe it sounds clever in an art context to work this way, but it's not that clever on a macro-level when you consider the home as a growing site of production for working people. The home is more and more frequently a site for freelance work; for caregiving; for running small cash side-gigs; to help struggling friends and family. To me, it is significant that Turbo reverberates the trajectory of the home for so many, especially when Turbo himself also lives and reflects that reality in the fictional narrative of work.
In your opinion, what are the strengths of utilizing a strong narrative structure for video art?
The strength of narrative structure lies in its ability to communicate with a broad audience. I think narratives are a very fundamental human communication strategy. But maybe there are more weaknesses than strengths when compared to the use of narrative structure with video art’s cousin: cinema. The question of audience comes to mind, which in my case would still be a gallery going bourgeois or petit-bourgeois audience. This could dilute the distributional and political potential of the medium since these audiences have higher levels of economic power which removes them from many direct political struggles. Possession of economic power then becomes a more complicated political-economic question, as it is intersected with the vectors of race, conservatism, and heteronormativity.
You mention the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois when thinking about your audience. How does their presence affect the way you think about who views your work? Does knowing you have a specific audience influence the themes you decide to tackle?
Who is the work for? Who do I think it is for? Who is alienated from it because of the way the work is conveyed through its aesthetic system?
It's an awareness that people in art generally don't have and have been trained, by omission in the academy, not to think about. Which to me points to a diminishing of the political potential of the field of visual art.
Knowing what an audience of bourgeoisie or petite-bourgeoisie expect to see is important in determining the language and aesthetic systems that artists or curators use to create work (by aesthetic system I mean the 'medium’ or 'genre’). Do we operate in a language and aesthetic system that is mostly understood in bourgeoisie circles? If we do, why do we do it knowing that radical potential is forfeited? Doing so makes the artist and curator the gatekeepers in the larger macro view of class relations in capitalism.
It is a tragedy when a political rhetoric is used by an artist to create an artwork that itself is not accessible to an audience outside of art circles. In this case, I often think, “who is this art for?” Although the intentions of the artist might be genuine if the politics are not accessible (especially to the people it deals with!), it is not a political work, and it is more so just presenting the politics to an art crowd, which is a limited arena for politics to be conducted.
You recently returned from a residency in Beijing, China with the Inside Out Art Museum. Can you talk a little about your experience working and being outside of Canada?
It was great, the cultural community there is incredible. There are very critical discussions being had about their tumultuous history since the founding of the Communist state (for lack of a better term) and the hyper-capitalist condition of the present. There are many retrospective shows and essays by historians and curators about the persecution of artists by the state, or the enforcement of Socialist Realist aesthetics on artists in the Mao-era, as well as contemporary work playing with the surveillance and propaganda systems, and the ramifications of their central planning. This is all happening at a time when the regime is re-centralizing its power. So even historical critiques of the past have an urgent feeling to the present.
Has your relationship or ideas about Western politics changed at all after working on new projects at the residency?
I appreciate how we are closer to an egalitarian society than in most places, and how we have the means to make it even more so.
Your most recent in-progress video project, The Young Comrade (2018), is loosely based upon the Bertolt Brecht play The Decision from 1930, about an attempt to educate Chinese workers about communism by masked European agents. Tell me about how the notion of masking identity plays itself into the work?
The notion of masking first appeared in Turbo when I needed to play a character named Brett Matthews. It dawned on me that I could become a “real” Brett Matthews by producing a mask made from a photograph of a person with the same name. So I appropriated a photo of a Brett Matthews from social media and transformed it into a wearable mask. In Turbo this is more of a clever formal decision than one that is conceptually vital as it is with The Young Comrade.
In the original play by Brecht, three European communist agents wear masks to avoid detection while operating in China. The masks they wear supposedly transform them into Chinese people. As such, in my project, I created three masks based on photographs of people who have the same names and currently live in the same cities as the European agents. I also created three Chinese masks for them to wear based on people that I photographed in Beijing. The masks became a way of injecting the fictitious aspects of the play into reality. The narrative of The Young Comrade is about a futile search for the remnants of these fictional characters in Beijing.
It seems that miscommunication (in relationship to propaganda) is an important theme in both Turbo and The Young Comrade. What is the significance of this theme to their storylines or character development?
In terms of miscommunication, I'm not too sure. Perhaps it is not miscommunication, but rather a quality of ambiguity in my personas and narratives that blend reality with fiction. I feel this is a result of is a desire to make things weird enough that people don't believe it, but also not-weird-enough that people can still get lost in the universe of the work and forget they are seeing a piece dealing with present-day issues. I think transgression could be a better word than miscommunication.
If transgression is more apt a word, I feel like both Turbo and The Young Comrade have a more innocent or martyred first impression to their characters. Do you relate to the anti-hero?
For Turbo, he is definitely innocent. The video profiles a character in a bizarre, absurd situation cast upon him by the Great Recession. Turbo is doomed to live with the behavioural impulses of a car.
For The Young Comrade, a fictional communist sympathizer, he's definitely a martyr because in the story he commits suicide after his naive heroism leads him to his near-capture by anti-communist authorities. He dies by his own naivete trying to lead a premature revolution to stop immediate misery of the proletariat, and in this sense, he is closer to a traditional hero—albeit a failed one. The Young Comrade's partners, the three European characters, constitute anti-heroes because they allow for the immediate misery of the proletariat to continue, and thus have more time to spread propaganda for an eventual revolution by a consenting public.
I think if I made work about hero-archetypes in the traditional sense the works would become too didactic.
What’s next for you? Are you working on any new projects?
Currently wrapping up Turbo and The Young Comrade. Then I'm looking forward to being out of major-production mode to concentrate on research for my next idea that is a logical progression of ideas in Turbo and The Young Comrade. No masks or cars next time! During this phase, I'll be making a new work for a window space in Toronto run by the curatorial collective, Shell Projects. It will be more of a short story compared to the novel-like qualities of Turbo and The Young Comrade. Outside of art-making, I just started a reading club and workshop to develop literacy in political economy for cultural workers.