intierview for Orejarena & Stein

YuanDi

1How did you both get into photography/video in the first place?

 

Caleb: When I was in high school I took a darkroom printing class with a wonderful teacher named Andrew Stole. In between test prints he’d pull me aside and show me photo books. I was completely blown away. I photographed all the time, I stayed after school to work in the darkroom, and I looked at every photo book I could get my hands on. I was completely hooked from the beginning.

 

 

Andrea: Throughout my childhood my dad made home videos. He was always playing around with camcorders and all of the pop-like video filters, and I grew up watching those videos and loving that 90s aesthetic. I think this early exposure to video contributed to me becoming a video artist. This passion for videos and using videos as a way of exploring the subversive power of play also took off when I went to Vassar for university where I studied with video artist Patrick McElnea.

 

 

2The two of you have collaborated on your latest project, Long Time No See, a project about the U.S.-Vietnam War, how did you get started on this project? How has it been affected?

 


We developed this process over a two-year period with Vietnamese veterans and younger generations. The initial desire was to find a way of creating an environment for a collaborative visual exchange to explore the memory of the war and the legacy of the chemical weapons used by the U.S. in that war, but we had no preconceived ideas of what that might look like. We went in and asked how people wanted to collaborate, and they told us, and the process grew from those conversations.

We worked with residents at Làng Hữu Nghị to bring together a constellation of paintings, photographs, and video that explore the memory of the war. Our process challenges the rigid divide between ‘subject’ and ‘author’ and seeks the radical vulnerability and dignity that comes from engaging person to person with our collaborators. Paintings that appear in Long Time No See were created by younger-generation Làng Hữu Nghị residents in a workshop we facilitated. With no previous artistic experience, these teenage residents use self-portraits to contend with inherited memory of war. Our photographs follow many of these same teenagers over two years at Làng Hữu Nghị; reflexive and collaborative, the photographs often picture residents with their own artwork – and at times, the people photographed contribute by drawing directly on photographs.

The videos, dream-like vignettes co-directed with Vietnamese veterans, blur the lines between memory, reality, dreams and wish-fulfillment. Through a series of freely associated images, the videos in Long Time No See emphasize firsthand experience and strive to redress official narratives.

We’re also bringing together a number of texts and working towards a book, with the exceptionally talented designer Brian Paul Lamotte. This will feature essays by editor, curator, and photographer Brad Feuerhelm and artist and writer Hannah Mezsaros Martin for Forensic Architecture, along with curator Đỗ Tường Linh’s interviews with veterans, and academics. Long Time No See offers a complex reckoning with a conflict that lives on not only in American and Vietnamese cultural memory but in the bodies of survivors and inheritors of Agent Orange.

 

 

 

 

3How many times have you been to this location from 2018 to 2020 when this project was filmed? And how do you guys get into the area and connect with the locals? What was the most visceral thing about this place for you guys?

 

We went every day. During the week we focused on the painting workshop and photographs and then we finished our days by drinking tea with the veterans and hearing stories about the war. The filming days were rarer because there were equipment rentals and many preparations were necessary. We did six film shoots and then spent many nights in the editing room at Daydu with our friends.

 

 

 

4Why is the work called "Long Time No See”?

 

It’s a translation. The original title is in Vietnamese Sign Language. We had come back from a three day trip to renew our visa and our friend from our workshop, Huong, greeted us with the most beautiful body gesture and it translated to Long Time No See. We had been looking for a title for weeks and were so stuck. When we both saw that gesture we looked at each other and knew: that was the title.

 

We became very close with the deaf community at Lang Huu Nghi and we learned Vietnamese sign language. The majority of this project was done through sign language, so we were so happy that the title originated from it as well.

 

We feel it also expresses our feelings about this war. Growing up in the U.S. the Vietnam-America war is not discussed widely. Our knowledge of this war came from one page in the history book, music from Woodstock, and many Hollywood films. All of them focused on the American perspective. For example, we didn’t know about Agent Orange, and its generational effects. The fact that the chemical weapons used by the U.S. during the war are still affecting people being born today was a complete shock to us. 

 

 

5This project uses a variety of mediums such as photography, painting, and video, so why did you do it?

 

 

It was a collaboration. We also did not want to prioritize one medium over another,  or rank one way of story-telling or expression over another. We came to Hanoi with the intention of breaking down barriers and opening up a dialogue and that also included being open to the mediums that everyone felt comfortable with.

 

6There are many areas of concern regarding the war between the United States and Vietnam, so why focus on the Vietnam veterans who were harmed by Agent Orange and their descendants?

 

Agreed, there are many problems with the U.S.’s role in the Vietnam-America war. For us, Agent Orange, and the general use of chemical warfare, was the most shocking because it outlives any political tension specific to a moment in history. It continues to be passed down through generations.

 

Also, after a war is over, it continues to be fought through who has the voice to continue to tell the story and write the narrative. We also wanted to focus on this. If we want to learn from history it is important to hear all perspectives. We were educated in the U.S. and neither of us were taught about Agent Orange. The U.S. educational system does not acknowledge the reality of U.S. foreign policy so we took it upon ourselves to go out and ask the questions and seek the knowledge from their perspective. We are also both very inspired by Glissant’s quote: “I can change, through exchange”. 

 

 

 

7Caleb Stein captures a lot of portraits of children, what do you perceive in them? They look a little melancholy.

 

The photographs were made by both of us as an artist duo. Sometimes Andrea clicked the shutter, sometimes Caleb did, but we were always deeply involved in the creation of each image, as were the people we photographed. Often the people in the photographs were involved in how the images were set up. After photographing, the subjects helped us edit the work – they always told us when they liked something and when they didn’t like something. We loved how direct they were and the openness of the conversation. In that sense we functioned as a collective.

 

Some of the photographs may hold a melancholy energy as you mentioned, but we hope that the photographs also convey a sense of play, poetry, and resilience that we wanted to explore and celebrate through the photographs.

 

 

8The moving images present veterans of the U.S.-Vietnam War and the still photographs capture their descendants, so why was this done?

 

The younger generation preferred painting and being photographed and the older generation preferred video.

 

 

9Can you tell us about the video works? From the video we can see: an old man lying peacefully in the clouds, an old man surrounded by flying birds, an old man illuminated by a beam of light, etc. Is there any special significance in the way the old man is integrated into the scene? Can you tell us more about these veterans' stories?

 

Each veteran chose a background that they wanted to be associated with. For example, one man told us that during the war he was stationed on a mountain as a night guard. He told us that for years he was up at night and he was so tired. All he wanted to do was sleep. He asked us if he could show him sleeping on a cloud. We brought in a green screen and filmed him sleeping and then we created an animation to fulfill his wish.

 

Often, the veterans did not want to be represented in a way that tied them to the war. They do not want to be defined by that war. Many of them chose to not discuss the war directly and instead chose images that they felt represented a more surreal alternative, symbolism, and dreamscapes.

 

 

 

10Why are there so many paintings on the walls of the rooms where the children live? Those paintings look like ghosts, as well as some of the paintings on the finished photographs. What role do the paintings have in this series?

 

The children are very creative and they use their surroundings as their canvas.

 

The paintings are a significant aspect of the series because they show how the people we worked with wanted to express themselves, how they saw themselves, and how they view the memory and legacy of the war.

 

11Caleb Stein's last work, Down by the Hudson, gave me a relaxed, laid-back summer feel, whereas this one is rather depressing and serious, so why the big shift?

 

We are both interested in exploring our relationship to the U.S., which is our adopted home. Photographing in a small American town, or working with veterans and younger generations living with the legacy of a war both have to do with that exploration.

 

The photographs in both projects have a wide range of subjects and approaches. They grapple with personalities, relationships, how we present ourselves, life, death, play, memory. It’s in both of them. Ultimately, everyone is going to bring their own response to the work.

 

12Why are there so many paintings on the walls of the room where the child lives? Those paintings look like ghosts, as well as some of the paintings on the finished photographs. What role do the paintings have in this series?

 

Lang Huu Nghi is, in many ways, a safe haven. Many of the people that live there are very happy and very free with their creativity. A lot of the younger generation express their creativity by painting and drawing on the walls of their rooms. They do this not only as a form of decoration, creative expression and place-making in their own bedrooms, but also on more public walls. It is such a significant aspect of life at Lang Huu Nghi that it’s only natural that it found its way into the photographs.

 

One of the things that we found interesting was complicating the line between authors and subjects. So that their drawings and paintings flow from their own works on paper, to the walls that you see in the photographs, and in some cases directly onto the photographs themselves which they often drew on with ink. In a lot of ways this was a utopian project. And there was this intense creative energy that pushed the project forward that was only possible because of the collective spirit and the strong relationships behind that spirit.

 

 

13There are three sets of work on Caleb Stein's website, all in black and white, why do you like shooting black and white?

 

I’m drawn to the relationship of photography to memory. I like the timelessness of black and white. I like how a black and white photograph can look like it was made a hundred years ago or a hundred years from now. For example, when I look at some of August Sanders’ photographs I feel like they look like they could have been made tomorrow.

 

I think black and white can be related to the future because it’s so deeply engrained in how we grapple with memory and the past that it will continue to be used as a way of grappling with that and encoding moments into a sort of timelessness. And that’s an approach that people are going to continue to use. Black and white photography is an effective language for grappling with mythology and memory and that’s not going to go away.

 

14What kind of feedback did you get after this set was completed? You exhibited at the Vincom Center for Contemporary Art, Hanoi, what kind of feedback did you get from the local audience? As well as I would like to know for Americans, what is their viewpoint again?

 

 

There was some censorship from the Vietnamese government. For example, one of the veterans wanted to be shown with footage of anti-war protests that happened in the U.S. during the Vietnam-America War. He chose this footage because during the war he knew that not everyone in the U.S. wanted to be involved in a conflict with Vietnam, and this helped him to forgive the U.S.

 

When the exhibition materials were submitted to the Vietnamese government for review, they wanted to censor this section of the video because it shows a protest, and protests are not legal in Vietnam, even though the footage shows anti-war protestors who were sympathetic to North Vietnam. We asked them to reconsider and ultimately the government asked us to blur the image by 50% for the exhibition. We decided that we should keep it this way as a record of the entire creative process.

 

During the exhibition, many locals, particularly a younger generation, wrote to us directly through social media to say that they felt moved by ‘Long Time No See’ because it felt different than what they described as patriotic narratives taught in Vietnamese schools. They felt that there was something more personal going on here and that they could engage with that. Several people said that they began to cry when they saw the work, and that they had never felt that way before, not even when they listened to their grandparents’ stories.

 

That was really touching to hear and it was encouraging that this work could open up a space for self-reflection about an issue that continues to affect Vietnam.

 

The pandemic has made it challenging to share this work with a U.S. audience at this point, so we are not sure how this work will be received by the U.S. public, although we have shown it to some people in the U.S. and they almost always reply by saying that they had no idea that Agent Orange continues to affect people decades after the war ended.

 

15It's true that it's not uncommon to shoot images of wars and disasters, what do you think is special about your work compared to others?

 

We wanted to avoid the sensationalism that is often associated with photographs about war. We also wanted to question and move past the traditional, rigid power dynamics between subject and author. Our work is more collaborative than traditional photojournalistic work about wars and disasters, which often involves a photographer taking a plane, taking a photo, and leaving very quickly.

 

 

16This year, the world is in an extremely unstable state due to the pandemic, and the global economy and politics have been greatly affected, but this series of works about war is the most realistic portrayal of the unstable state of the world. What do you want to convey to the audience (or rather, what inspiration can you give them) through this series of works?

 

Hopefully this work can function as an example of how to find another way of making work, about the memory of war, politics, or any given topic, that engages local communities and opens up a space for a more democratic exchange that comes from a place of love.


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