Space Fiction & the Archives
Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen
February 20 to March 28, 2015
Space Fiction & the Archives transports viewers to the small town of St Paul, Alberta, in 1967. The year of 1967 was Canada’s Centennial, which engendered unparalleled optimism as the country unveiled ambitious projects showcasing its culture and history to fellow Canadians and to the world. One of these projects was the construction of the world’s first “UFO Landing Pad” built in St Paul. This curious construction was proclaimed a “symbol of Western hospitality” by Paul Hellyer, Minister of National Defense at that time. Space Fiction & the Archives is a focal point of the rhetoric and visual representation surrounding this curious structure and the kind of hospitality within the particular historical and spatial context of Canada in the late 1960s. The exhibition presents a short film titled 1967: A People Kind of Place and a photograph of world’s first “UFO Landing Pad.” Space Fiction & the Archives is not a specific critique of the city of St Paul, but it rather looks macroscopically at incongruities and optimism that are reflected in the presented materials in an attempt to recognize the emergence of a new vocabulary defining belonging and co-existence, and the will to imagine a different geography of encounters. The project is Nguyen’s thoughtful exploration of “the emergence of multiculturalism as state policy” through collecting, assembling, re-framing and interpreting the constellation of archival materials.
Essay: Unity in Diversity
“We don’t have a quota for green people.”
A comedy sketch playing out an interview between a Canadian customs officer and a martian unravels in a hilarious exercise in interpretation. The irony of ostensibly objective border control directives and the highly subjective interpretive border work that happens on the ground is not lost on the officer.
“I’ll put you on the waiting list. That’s the best I can do, sir.”
This scene is part of a collection of archival footage, interviews and ephemera that Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen fluidly assembles in 1967: A People Kind of Place. This film and its accompanying installation—which together, comprise elements of Space Fiction & the Archives—focuses on the small town of St Paul, Alberta, their building of a UFO landing pad as a centennial symbol of “western hospitality,” and the multiple ways that Canadians were called on to perform the image of a progressive and hospitable nation reaching its 100th year.
Nguyen’s use of science fiction reveals not just the flaws of multiculturalism that are otherwise difficult to see, but demonstrates how multiculturalism itself is the construction of a social fiction. She frames the story from the vantage point of an alien, taking up St. Paul’s invitation. Playful as this approach is, the artist takes seriously the cultural production of a country that was emerging as a global political player. She understands these projects are not the stuff of utopian naivety, but of an appreciation of the power of evocative imaginaries. From alien landing pads, the futuristic monuments of Expo ’67, to images of children of all colours holding hands in a happy circle, these materializations of Canada’s new slogan, unity in diversity carry lasting power despite resistance in day to day reality.
Taking a feminist approach to her research based work, Nguyen mingles official state records of the centennial events with embodied experiences and marginalized oral histories. A television broadcast of the centennial commissioner, rallying Canadians to ensure the success of the celebrations, is counterposed with a memory recalled by a former student of St Paul Des Métis Residential School, of performing in a play that celebrated the various cultures of Canada, with the exclusion of aboriginal people. Film footage of Prime Minister Trudeau’s speech invoking a future for a nation that must be unified, progressive and socially just, is contrasted by an audio recording of a very different call to justice by aboriginal activist Mary Ann Lavallée, who urges those coming to “the promised land” to consider how their rights as citizens are out of reach for the native population.
Time travel is the narrative strategy here. Attributing flaws and extending the agencies in these found materials, Nguyen transforms their relationships to the future by summoning the present into the past. Inversely, she contextualizes Pierre Trudeau’s innovative point-based immigration system as a technology of bodily production in a way that may call on viewers to consider its rather dystopian outcome today. The slide photograph of the UFO landing pad also plays a part. Enlarged and illuminated, glowing like a persistent memory in the window of the gallery—the image beckons the viewer, like it beckoned its archivist, and Nguyen, to bring its significance to bear in the present.
If we were to consider this image of the landing pad that Nguyen presents us with not merely as a document of a utopian dream, but as a living technology of imaginary production ripe for a renewed agency, perhaps we could try to meet its original call for a hospitable multicultural future in a more radical and socially-just form.
Born in Montréal, Jacqueline Hoang Nguyen is a French-speaking Quebecer of Vietnamese origin currently living and working in Stockholm, Sweden and Montréal, Canada. Nguyen completed the Whitney Independent Study Program in New York (2011) and obtained an MFA and a post-graduate diploma in Critical Studies at the Malmö Art Academy, Malmö, Sweden (2005). Nguyen’s work has been shown internationally in institutions including the MTL BNL, Montreal (2014); A Space, Toronto (2014); Kunstverein Braunschweig, Braunschweig, Germany (2013); Apexart, New York (2013); PAVED Arts, Saskatoon, SK (2013); Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), Philadelphia (2011); Mason Gross Galleries, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ (2011); Galerie Im Regierungsviertel, Berlin (2010); Gasworks, London (2010); and Pictura Gallery/Skanska Konstmuseum, Lund, Sweden (2009). In 2011 she was commissioned by CC Seven to produce a site-specific sound piece for The Woodland Cemetery, a Unesco World Heritage site in Stockholm.