Lessons Learned 1: Huong Ngo
Lessons Learned is a series of posts that seek to activate critical debates about radical education strategies on and off the Field through conversations with artists who are rethinking in a similar way, how, where, and with whom learning happens. The following is an excerpt from an interview with Huong Ngo that took place on June 1oth, 2010.
Huong Ngo was born in Hong Kong, grew up in North Carolina, and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Her practice blurs the line between artist, educator, and designer, and her research focuses on the relationship between craft revival and radical pedagogy. She has exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, the Soap Factory, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and the National Gallery in Prague. Ngo has also received awards and residencies from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. She currently teaches at Parsons the New School for Design and Pratt Institute. This summer, she will be participating in the project called Radical Citizenship, which is taking place on Governor’s Island, NY and is organized by Mary Walling Blackburn. She will also be leading a class called “Cottage Industry” at the School of the Future, a temporary unschool in a Brooklyn park, and will feature an audio interview with a Québec artisan as part of the project Bike Box, organized by Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown. Ngo’s deepest desire is for radical aesthetics to invade the classroom, and education to resume its subversive role in the practice of freedom.
Amara: How is New York this summer? It sounds like you are busy with some interesting projects.
Huong Ngo: Yeah. It’s great. I just got done teaching last month and have been working on projects and traveling since then. NY is good. We’ve found an amazing community that is really into education.
Amara: Tell me about this education community. Has it always been there or is this something new?
Huong Ngo: The community here is a combination of artists, educators, home schoolers, designers, intellectuals, writers, interested peoples. Of course it’s a fluid group. Some are people who started schools or were a part of artist-run schools like Secret School, Trade School, and School of the Future. In particular, I’ve been collaborating with Chris Kennedy on Conversations at the Commons, which has been a platform for people to get together and share research on radical education. This research that I’ve presented at the Whitney ISP Pedagogy group will also be part of a collaboration with Hong-An Truong this summer on Governor’s Island, and a project with students in the US and Iraq in the fall. Another project I’m working on, Cottage Industry came from conversations and research about craft and the economy.
Amara: Can you talk a little about the cottage industry historically?
Huong Ngo: Well, I’m looking at it from a WPA/Craft Revival historical perspective, in which many crafts were taught along with entrepreneurial skills to people in rural places. I am interested in aesthetic knowledge that is transferred along with something else. In the case of the historic cottage industry, that something else is a business savvy, a deep understanding of materials, a history of the craft, and much more. The Cottage Industry class (which you’ve caught me in the beginning phase of) is an update – looking at what knowledge can be transferred and what new models can be generated as a group through the contemplation of the historic cottage industry model. I’m interested in exploring the role of craft in our current industrialized/globalized/capitalist society, what it means to make and sell your work from a Marxist perspective, and what the local economy means to a contemporary cottage industry.
On the surface, a cottage industry is screwed. Out-marketed, out-produced, undercut. But from a recent interview with a Québec artisan, I realized that it’s actually industries, local cultures, national economies that are screwed. Monopoly and homogeneity are shortsighted, while variety and cooperation are real survival mechanisms.
Cottage Industry is part survival contemplation for artists. How do we survive? How can entrepreneurship be healthy and sustainable? Can we subvert capitalism while being a part of it? All of these questions I have and would like to explore.
Amara: I am interested in the connection you are making between the transmission of knowledge and the active production of something very material, hand-made and artisan. Can you talk more about this shift between theory and praxis?
Huong Ngo: The theory is really a part of the praxis. When it comes to objects that are handmade, the theory often finds itself in ‘how’ the object is made, presented. The praxis is that process.
Amara: So through this process of ‘making’ you are opening up a larger conversation; where art becomes a lens through which to view other issues.
Huong Ngo: I am definitely on the side of teaching art to understand the world.
Amara: Is it important to keep your projects within an artistic context?
Huong Ngo: Absolutely not. In fact, I prefer to have them outside the realm. The difference is that inside of the artistic realm, audiences are often more attentive and open to those ideas. They put themselves in a new mental place to receive them. Do you think passers-by would be interested in Marina Abramovic if she was sitting in a dress in Washington Square Park. Maybe some, but you wouldn’t have quite so many people talking about the meanings of the performer, the audience, the body, the mind, as you have with her at the MoMA. I think it is important, as an artist and a viewer, to have both experiences.
Amara: Can a class taught in Washington Square Park be as effective as a class taught inside a museum or a university? Is education what people really want in these common spaces?
Huong Ngo: It’s a good question. I think a lot of it is expectation. We have an expectation that a class at a university is of great value, so we give it our time and complete attention. Universities also tend to discourage anything that might be distracting to that experience of learning. At Washington Square Park, we have an expectation to relax and enjoy leisure time. Museums are somewhere in between, where leisure, entertainment, and education mix. Interrupting those spaces creates a moment to rethink how we value those spaces and question whether the university really is the right place to learn everything or whether the park is a place where learning can occur.
Amara: I am thinking more specifically now, how do you perform the act of teaching, what strategies, or materials inform your practice?
Huong Ngo: Just as learning is more sustainable if there is a need, so is teaching. I find that I have to have a desire for teaching that goes beyond practical concerns–I need to know how people learn or I have a question and I want to discuss it with my students or I get excited to try out a new way to introduce an issue and motivate a creative response. The same goes for my creative practice, of which teaching is most definitely a part. It begins with a need–a question that determines my creative and pedagogical approach, from which I might begin to understand.
Amara: Could you give a little background on the mind maps we are looking at. To me they seem like a useful tool, illuminating the non-linear nature of learning and history making.
Huong Ngo: They are definitely process documents that change after each discussion that I have about the topic. I think it’s valuable just to see them and acknowledge the messiness of piecing together histories. Also, I really wanted them to be an invitation for further changes and additions.