Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, Space Fiction & the Archives (2012). Installation shot. Film and installation of archival material. Image courtesy of the artist.

Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen, the Archive and Why the Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

For An Epidemic Resistance in <laughter> organized by Kari Cwynar apexart, New York
23 May–27 July 2013
Space Fiction & the Archives
AXENÉO7, Gatineau 27 March–21 April 2013 Traveling

Review by Amber Berson

This FUSE article from issue 36-4 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure. 

I’ve wanted to write something about the work of Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen for a long time. Since before I saw her show at AXENÉO7 (Gatineau, 2013), and even before Space Fiction & the Archives was shown at VOX (Montreal, 2012). In my curatorial capacity, I had tried hard to program her work For An Epidemic Resistance (2009), about a laughter epidemic which took place in 1962 in Kashasha, Tanzania. On her website, Nguyen states that the piece was influenced by social and cultural historian Marjolein Hart’s assertion that laughter “functions as a true ‘weapon of the weak.’” With that statement, and her interest in how the weak fight back and resist, I became irresistibly enthralled by Nguyen’s work.

It is Nguyen’s assertion of the power of resistance that draws viewers into her practice. In For An Epidemic Resistance, a 25-channel sound installation in which each speaker, hung from the ceiling, plays a laughing voice, the audience is lured into a laughing fit amidst the artwork. The actual laughing epidemic took place in 1962, in a remote village in the north- eastern edge of modern-day Tanzania. The town was part of the Republic of Tanganyika — a sovereign state that existed for only two years in Eastern Africa. Tanganyika was formed following independence from the United Kingdom a year earlier. The outbreak of laughter, or mass hysteria as it is some- times described, lasted for six months and first occurred at a mission-run boarding school for girls, then spread to surrounding villages. If we follow Hart’s thesis that laughter “functions as a true ‘weapon of the weak,’” we can choose to read the girls’ laughter as a form of resistance against their patriarchal society and the colonizers at their mission-run institution. While the Republic of Tanganyika was a free state, the influence of the colonizer was still present by way of the mission school and other institutional programs. Very little is known about the Kashasha laughing epidemic, and little more about the girls who started it. What has been written has almost exclusively come from the point of view of the colonizer. Yet the girls’ weapon — laughter — eventually shut down the school (and other institutions), proving it an effective means of resistance, which Nguyen celebrates in her piece.

Fast-forward a few years to 1967. Canada is poised to celebrate its centennial and all across the country citizens and institutions are creating projects in honour of their colonial history. We are in an age of heterochrony: while Canadians were celebrating 100 years of sovereignty from the Crown, First Nations people were formulating the Brown Paper in response to Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s infamous 1969 White Paper, which proposed dismantling the Indian Act and breaking down established legal relationships between First Nations people and the Canadian government. While millions of people were flooding Montreal’s Expo 67 — whose motto “Man and His World” was meant to symbolize multiculturalism, openness and world harmony — the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the American civil rights movement, global student protests, Che Guevara’s death and other events were illustrating that we can’t all just get along.

In Space Fiction & the Archives, which is comprised of historical artifacts and docu- mentation as well as a video titled 1967: A People Kind of Place (2012), Nguyen shows the audience another break in the weave of national narrative. In 1967, the residents of St. Paul, Alberta, were building the world’s first UFO landing pad “to welcome everybody from this earth, and also extraterrestrial beings, if there are any.” Meanwhile, Trudeau, in an effort to render immigration policy free of racial discrimination, introduced the “points-based system,” which attempted to relieve the pressures of sponsored immigration, and which tallied a hopeful immigrant’s worth on the basis of personal qualities, education, training, age and occupational demand in Canada. In short, Canada was theoretically open to everyone, even if you had no prior ties to the country. This sentiment is echoed in the UFO-oriented welcome message of St. Paul’s mayor, even if it did not reflect the actual reality of immigration in Canada.

In watching 1967: A People Kind of Place, it be- comes clear that the Martian landing pad built in Alberta is symbolic of the blind spots in the Canadian national narrative, and that it was a project cele- brating settler colonial history. In the text that accompanied Space Fiction & the Archives, Liz Park mentions that the town of St. Paul, Alberta, had once been named St. Paul des Métis. In dropping “des Métis” from their official name, the town of St. Paul attempted to erase its colonial history. This exhibit challenges these types of erasures. Nguyen’s work, which she aptly names “space fiction,” is not about telling fantastical stories or even about altering perceived truths — it is about making space for heterochronic fictions, even the difficult ones.

Despite her attention and care for the research, the artist states that she does not feel burdened with the need to tell the truth. She believes that her role as artist is to find new truths, to disrupt the dominant narrative without necessarily relying on pure facts. Nguyen’s work is about difficult subjects — she disrupts the dominant narrative of our culture to destabilize colonial discourse. Her aesthetic choices — clean lines and smooth forms — are informed by our expectations of what belongs in a museum or archive, but her works resist the whitewashed stories that are customarily presented there.

While Nguyen tackles new research with the same methodological drive as historians and anthropologists do, she is also deeply invested in storytelling. Space Fiction & the Archives is the result of a two-year research project that had her digging in archives and speaking with residents of St. Paul as well as with a UFO study group and with then Minister of National Defence Paul Hellyer. In her film, Nguyen invites Hellyer to reread his 1967 speech for the opening of the launch pad, and then reflect on whether his opinions had changed over the course of 45 years. Hellyer, a long-time advocate of declassifying government documents about aliens, [1] had run for the Liberal candidacy against Trudeau during the era that saw the creation of the point system, and his opinions on immigration (extraterrestrial or otherwise) might have altered the centennial narrative away from multiculturalism as a state policy that erases, or voluntarily forgets, the process of colonization in Canada.

[1] Hellyer also famously accused Stephen Hawking of covering up alien contact, stating “the reality is that [aliens have] been visiting Earth for decades and probably millennia and have contributed considerably to our knowledge.” (“Ex-Defence Minister Defends Aliens, Says Hawking Wrong,” The Canadian Press [2 May 2010] online); Hawking suggested that if human beings tried to contact aliens, they could invade us and take away our most important resources, and warned that aliens might be here try to conquer and colonize Earth. See Fay Schlesinger, “Stephen Hawking: Earth Could Be at Risk of an Invasion by Aliens Living in ‘Massive Ships,’” MailOnline (26 April 2010; online).


Amber Berson’s current research focuses on artist-run culture and she is working on a PhD in Art History at Queen’s University. She works in and with artist-run centres, notably Eastern Bloc and articule, and most recently curated the Wild Bush Residency in Val-David, Quebec, and Amden, Switzerland, In Your Footsteps at VAV Gallery, The Magpies Nest at Wenger Homestead in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and We lived on a map… at the Centre for Ethnographic Research and Exhibition in the Aftermath of Violence (CEREV). She is also on the editorial committee of .dpi, a feminist journal of digital art and culture.



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