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Ho Tzu Nyen & the Treachery of Southeast Asia


Ho Tzu Nyen & the Treachery of Southeast Asia
Ho Tzu Nyen, The Name, 2015, still from single-channel HD projection, sound, 16 min 51 sec, installed with 16 books by the author Gene Z. Hanrahan. Courtesy the artist.

We caught up with artist Ho Tzu Nyen on the occasion of Ghosts and Spectres -- Shadows of History, a recent exhibition at NTU CCA, as well as his performance as a part of CCA's Fourth Anniversary Party, involving his ongoing project The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia (cdosea). Ho, known for his video and theatrical works, tells us more about the Dictionary, the two works included in the exhibition, The Name and The Nameless, and how they all relate to his overall practice as an artist. 



Can you give us a bit of background on the impetus to launch the Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia? It was initially launched in 2012, how has it evolved since then?

A little bit of context from my personal life might make sense - I did my Master’s in Southeast Asian Studies in 2004 - 2006, and an entry-level type question one gets in a programme such as this is the question of what unites Southeast Asia. I had the feeling that it might be interesting to shift that question out of regional studies into an aesthetic one, a move that takes it out of the search for a unifying essence, into one of composition, open to speculation.

For the last decade or so, I have been collecting a series of motifs, anecdotes and biographies that offered a different way of relating the cultures gathered under the umbrella term of Southeast Asia.  Many of my other projects came out of this collection, but around 2012, I began thinking of a way to present the collection as a whole, which is when the Dictionary officially began.  But there was a long period of gestation as I couldn’t find a suitable form to present the Dictionary, because the dictionary evokes the sense of something authoritative, whereas, to me, the nature of Southeast Asia seems to be the very opposite of that, because it open, dynamic, heterogeneous.  But some time last year, this idea of creating an algorithmic editing system that will endlessly re-compose and re-combine my collection became my way out of this conundrum.

Ho Tzu Nyen, still from the Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia. Courtesy the artist.  

Some letters in the Critical Dictionary’s alphabet have multiple words assigned to them. Are you constantly adding to the Dictionary or is what you have now the final Dictionary as it is?

It’s constantly evolving. But at this stage, the evolution is not a completely open one, as its own history – the history of the collection has began to introduce certain parameters that shape its future unfolding. For example, if I do add new terms to the letters, they have to be somehow woven into what already exists. I find this way of working very interesting, because the project gradually grows its own frames and rules, and I have to adapt and work...

Within the framework…

Yes, within this framework which is itself evolving.

Tell us a bit more about your collaboration with Bani Haykal for the Critical Dictionary of SEA, how does the sound relate to the algorithm?

Basically, Bani performed, with infinite resourcefulness musicalizes, and vocalizes all the text that I have written. On the website (, the viewer is presented with only one version of the script, as well as one version of Bani’s recorded performance.  But there are at least 10 versions of sung script that the algorithmic editing system is selecting from, to accompany the theoretically infinite number of combinations of images. My other collaborator Yasuhiro Morinaga created a library of Southeast Asian musical fragments that the algorithms picks from and re-combines.  In other words, the Dictionary is like a river that one cannot step into twice – because the text, the image and the sound elements are composed, or recombined live by the algorithms and thus always different.

Ho Tzu Nyen, The Nameless, 2015, still from synchronised two-channel HD projections, double 5.1 systems, 21 min 51 sec. Courtesy the artist.  

During the performance, a few of the terms from different parts of the alphabet, had recurring images, like Gene Z. Hanrahan can show up in a different image, or clips shown in a certain letter can appear in a different letter. How large is the database that the algorithm is pulling from, and where do you get all this material?

The rule that I set myself is that the material must all be downloadable, legally or illegally. That is an important parameter. It’s important for me that the source of the Dictionary must always already be data already, that the ‘raw materials’ from which it is built exists in a digital form. Right now we have more than 200 feature films from or about Southeast Asia, and more than 2,000 clips sourced from Youtube, Vimeo and other platforms. All these materials are absorbed into an online platform on which all my collaborators work – it is a site where we process these materials through tagging them, and these tagged clips in turn feed the algorithmic editing system, with the website displaying the result.

You manually tag?! I assumed it was part of the algorithm that it finds a way of figuring out how the clips are relevant. Does the source material expand?

Yes (laughs), we do the tagging manually, but I find this process very interesting, because a lot of it is outsourced to others, who proceed by trying to tagging the raw materials of the videos according to parameters that I define.  In a sense, I think what we have done is no more, or less random than if we had completely automated the process through an algorithm.  Or to put it differently, perhaps this process of outsourcing with parameters is not all that different from writing a code to automate certain processes.

Anyway, at the moment we’ve barely scratched the surface of these materials, as we’ve probably gone through 10-20% of them.  By other than just working to dig deeper into our archive, we’ve also been expanding the capacity of the system, for example by introducing a subtitle function, and producing subtitles for these randomly called up texts. In a sense, we are developing a system without a definite end-point which is what fascinates me.

Ho Tzu Nyen, The Name, 2015, single-channel HD projection, sound, 16 books by the author Gene Z. Hanrahan. Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History, 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore. 

Do you have any copyright issues with all this found footage that you’re using?

have no issues, although I’m not sure about others. I think a lot of our so-called moral and legal issues are habitual hang-ups that cannot keep pace with the way reality is being shaped by technologies. All the materials I work with are there, available in the cloud of data.  What I am doing is simply to divert and channel these, without disguising their origins or my processes.  
Anyway, one term which pops in and out of the Dictionary is ‘piracy’, which is endemic to Southeast Asia in many ways.  So this fuzzy, liminal zone of data use is a key characteristic of the project for me.


The source material that you use for the two works currently presented at CCA is quite different. The Nameless focuses on Tony Leung featuring in his different films, and in The Name, there’s a far larger selection and focused on Euro-American source material. Why the difference in presentation and focus on a specific region?

The Name and The Nameless, lead to the Dictionary as a way of rethinking the tradition of found footage films that has a long tradition in Euro-American experimental film circles, though strangely not much practiced in Asia where piracy in everyday life is rampant.

A foundation of the practice of found footage is selection, collection and classification. The best example of this is Christian Marclay’s amazing work, The Clock, which is an entire work generated from a process of classifying images that indicate the passing of time.  Likewise The Nameless began by the selection of an actor, who becomes the thread by which materials are collected. And I would say that although The Nameless was centered on the historical character known as Lai Teck, who was the Sino-Vietnamese Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party and a triple agent, The Nameless was also finally possible only because Tony Leung existed. His filmography consisted not only of numerous films in which he played characters of shifting and double allegiances, but also a couple of films set in Vietnam.  

The Name came shortly after The Nameless, so a lot of my decisions in The Name were affected by what I did with The Nameless, and in some sense became its formal opposite.  So instead of focusing on films with a single recognisable figure like Tony Leung, I decided to make The Name with a multiplicity of actors in Euro-American films who are playing authors, or characters involved in the act of writing.  Of course this also has to do with the subject, of Gene Z. Hanrahan, a ghostwriter who wrote the first authoritative account of the history of the Malayan Communist Party. If The Nameless focused on a pan Southeast Asian figure whose biography can be read as a microcosmic folding in of all the political and historical turmoil of the region, then The Name was a work about a kind of faceless power shaping the region during the Cold War.  

Ho Tzu Nyen, The Nameless, 2015, still from synchronised two-channel HD projections, double 5.1 systems, 21 min 51 sec. Courtesy the artist.  

When I was watching the films there was this dichotomy between the two because I don’t recognize Tony Leung, because he is not a character or actor that I know, but seeing the American films it was a lot more familiar to me, so there is this recognition of the films themselves, while also trying to understand the story that’s being told and the message that’s being said through the work itself. Moving away from the visuals, could you expand on the use of sound and music in your works? In a lot of the found footage, you’ve melded your own soundtrack and voiceovers with the background or original soundtrack of the films, and that happens even in the Critical Dictionary, melded with Bani Haykal’s voice. What kind of effect do you hope to draw out through this, or what do you hope the viewer understands from that?

This recognition, or sensing of a kind of excess that is unfolding beyond the narrative of The Nameless and The Name is integral to both works.  
Regarding sound, the rules that I set for myself in both these works is not to add in any external sources of music or sound other than the narrating voice. So all of the sound and music that was used for The Nameless and The Name, came out of the clips themselves. I often work by establishing these kind of frameworks just so that I can complete the project on time…

Otherwise it’s infinite.


Ho Tzu Nyen, The Nameless, 2015, synchronised double-channel HD projection, sound. Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History, 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore. 

On the subject of voice, what about the languages that you use in the films? Even for the Critical Dictionary, the languages it is currently translated into are Korean and Norwegian. I’m curious at this choice -- the import of the Critical Dictionary is that Southeast Asia doesn’t have a single language that we can all unite under, so will you be moving towards translating into different languages in the future?

For The Nameless first, my choice of languages was because of the subject. The Nameless is simultaneously played on two screens with two different voice tracks, one in Vietnamese the other in Mandarin so that one can never be sure if one is hearing all of the story, and that this process of translation also opens up to the shiftiness, and perhaps incommensurability of treachery.

For The Name, I worked with three American voice actors so that their voices can be inserted quite naturally into the images mostly produced by the American film industry. I worked with three voice actors who had very different tonalities, but I edited their recitals in such a way that we are never sure actually of how many voices, just as we can never be sure if Gene Z. Hanrahan was ultimately one, or multiple.

As for why the Dictionary is in English, this is a complicated question. First of all, it has to be said that being Singaporean, with my particular history of education, doing the Dictionary in any other language than English would have been somewhat artificial, for mebut at the same time, I’ve always felt distant from English as I spoke Mandarin at home with my parents.  But at the same time, Mandarin is not my mother tongue, because as you of course know, we, in Singapore, have been formally educated in English since young.  Basically, I have always felt alienated from every language. I feel like no language comes easily for me, which is why, in my works, I often finally choose to write in English, but to have the text recited or sung by others.  Singing, or musicalizing language enables me to get out of this gap that I feel between my brain and my tongue.

But our intention with the Dictionary has been to seek opportunities to translate it into as many languages as possible. This is why it was  important we developed the subtitling capacity. So far, our translations depend on the commissions that come our way. It was last shown as installations in Korea, and in Norway, and that explains the Korean and Norwegian translations.


But then there is the inherent corruption of what’s being translated again, related to the translator-traitor relationship.

Exactly.  What you call corruptions fascinate me.  I think of these as simply processes that open up the text.

Ho Tzu Nyen, still from the Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia. Courtesy the artist.  

I’m curious because The Name and The Nameless both present these two, what you would consider, political figures, Lai Teck and Gene Z. Hanrahan, neither of which are particularly well-known in Singapore history. Do you think that you have more opportunity in presenting the content by presenting the works as art, especially in a place like Singapore? I know that The Nameless was previously censored in China -- perhaps you could expand on that?

The Nameless was first commissioned for the Shanghai Biennale in 2015, where it was subsequently censored. To be honest, I have no idea what the exact reason for the ban was, but I usually say in interviews that the reason was because Tony Leung came out in support of the Umbrella Revolution, and got himself onto the black-list in China at that time.  I thought ‘blaming’ Tony Leung for this was an amusing way to avoid further questions.

I’ve never considered my work in art to be a substitute for politics, or a platform for what cannot be otherwise uttered.  Rather my work is driven solely by my questions, beliefs and interests, which are often historical and philosophical in nature and therefore, inevitably political.  In a region like Southeast Asia, where the history of Communism has been so thoroughly demonized and repressed, it is easy to see The Name or The Nameless as political simply by virtue of what they deal with. But I think the real question is to ask what these works are saying, and also how they speak.  For me, The Name begins by foregrounding how an official version of history – like that in Malaya, which has been resolutely anti-communist has itself been manipulated – most probably by CIA interests, in the era of the Cold War.  But it is, for me, in the last instance, a work that ultimately engages with the vagaries of authorship and authority.  The Nameless begins with a little-known but historically crucial chapter in the history of the Malayan Communist Party.  But I tried to do so by avoiding replicating the standard variations of this alternative narrative.  What is the meaning of a Malayan Communism that was infiltrated at the highest level?  And how do we think this metamorphic figure of Lai Teck beyond our stock response of condemning traitors. And what exactly is treason? Who defines treason?

In the last decade or so, we have witnessed in Singapore, a small increase in the number of cultural productions dealing with the histories of the left.  But most of them do so in ways that are sentimental and nostalgic. I think, and I hope The Name and The Nameless are as distant from them as they are from official histories.

Ho Tzu Nyen, The Name, 2015, single-channel HD projection, sound, 16 books by the author Gene Z. Hanrahan. Ghosts and Spectres – Shadows of History, 2017, NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, installation view. Courtesy NTU CCA Singapore. 

Last question, what projects do you have coming up, and what might be the next term that you tackle on the Critical Dictionary?

The term that I’ve spent the most amount of time on in the last few years was ‘T for Tigers’.   I like to believe I am finally freed of this demanding master with One or Several Tigers, which was first presented at the House of World Culture in Berlin in May 2017, and will be presented in December 2017 at the National Gallery of Singapore, before a small tour to Japan and Europe in 2018.

This means I can finally spend more time on the rest of the Dictionary, in particular ‘R for Resonance’ and ‘L for Lai Teck’.  ‘R for Resonance’ is born as a kind of thought experiment, or perhaps just a curiosity about what sound would be produced if one is to simultaneously strike a large number of gongs collected from different parts of Southeast Asia.  Would this tone be harmonious or dissonant?  And I dream of all the stories contained in this one sound, stories for example, about the transfer of metallurgical technologies within this region, a region perhaps woven together by resonance rather than reason.  

And I would also like to dig deeper into Lai Teck, to think further about why this shapeshifting figure, playing off a number of colonial powers, in some strange way, represents for me, a monstrous example of a true Southeast Asian subject.



Find out more about the Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia here, and catch Ho Tzu Nyen's work One or Several Tigers at the City Hall Chambers of the National Gallery of Singapore from 18th December 2017 until 28 January 2018.

Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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