It’s magical that no one kills each other: In conversation with Bao Nguyen

Credit: Sentient Sediment, performance documentation by Lianghong Ke, 2023.

Zoom conversation between Bao Nguyen and Jonathan Pfeffer that took place on September 26, 2023, edited and condensed for clarity.

Bao Nguyen: When I first moved to the US during high school, I didn’t know how to drive a car so I would walk a lot and take the bus. With public transport, you walk more than normal because sometimes certain roads don’t have bus access; I might have to walk for like 20 minutes just to get to the bus stop. Also, the nature of getting from one place to another with public transport, I think sometimes you’re going to get lost and you’re going to wander a lot. I walked a lot during a time in my life when I was having an identity crisis around puberty, teenage anxiety, and adapting to a new environment.

I always feel like walking is this existential effort to get somewhere. To walk is a way to release emotion, but also walking is a way to try. I don’t know exactly what it is exactly I want to try, but at least try to feel better. Just walking is a way to do something with all the energy and anxiety I have. When you’re anxious, you’re going to find a way to release that anxiety through the impulse to walk. Walking is how I’ve come to understand duration and emotional journeys. I became interested in the basic idea that the “you” that walks from point A and the “you” that arrives at point B are two different people. It’s really simple. Sometimes I would sit on the bus or the train for an hour or more. I’d spend almost two hours on public transport just to get somewhere.

I was raised Catholic but I stopped going to church in the time period I’m talking about. I came to the US and didn’t see how my faith helped me with anything. Last year I started to practice Buddhism more seriously. There is this thing called walking meditation where you walk mindfully, and you feel happiness in each step. You feel this calm emotion when you walk. That process made me rethink walking; I feel like I’m basically healing myself through this walking practice because it’s such a different experience from walking in anxiety when I’m 16 or 17 years old.

The amount of time I spent on the bus unlocked something for me. I came to understand there is an internal experience connected to the transition of the landscape, like your inner change. Your outer change, like the landscape, transforms as you move through it. I made a connection between these two experiences. You create an embodied experience of thinking through your body if you’re walking.

I’m always excited every time I take the bus. You step on this vehicle and it takes you to places and you pay such a low amount, and then there is this stranger you trust that they’re going to drive you somewhere. I still find public transport to be kind of magical.

Credit: The Center for Questioning and Questioning and Questioning? (Norfolk edition), performance documentation by JT and Cyle Warner, 2022.

Jonathan Pfeffer: I feel similarly. I wonder if it’s because I got my driver’s license relatively late in life. Do you have a driver’s license?

BN: Yeah, I just got it in May.

JP: I got mine when I was 22.

BN: I’m 22 right now, too.

JP: I really like how you don’t seem concerned about specific destinations when you talk about walking or taking public transit. Your relationship to the bus brings up some interesting questions for me around control. On one hand, public transit forces us to forfeit control in ways that stigmatize the bus in cities with more entrenched car cultures i.e. “Poor people take the bus; rich people drive themselves or summon Ubers.”

As you said, it’s common to walk not-insignificant distances to and from a bus stop. Riders are beholden to the whims of the bus schedule, which in many cities can be unpredictable or unreliable. Once you’re on the bus, the fact that you’re part of a communal experience limits the amount of control you have over your personal space – I’m sure both of us are familiar with getting up close and personal with the assorted sounds and smells of people on buses.

On the other hand, I think public transit gives us more flexibility and freedom than we have when we are completely responsible for every aspect of our journeys. We give up aspects of control in order to liberate ourselves in certain ways. Bus rides give me so much freedom to go inward; I’ve gotten so much good thinking done on buses.

BN: Yeah, I agree.

JP: Which elements of control do you gain and surrender when you take the bus?

BN: Well, I think the situation itself I cannot control, but I can control my response. I think meditation, Buddhism, or faith practices in general are about trying to control your response to situations that are out of your control.

Yesterday, the police had to block a part of the road, so the bus couldn’t pass through. The bus had to go back, and we had to wait for 10-15 minutes without knowing what was going to happen. I ended up having to get off the bus and take another one. There are always twists and turns with public transport when you have to redirect your route to get around.

I think navigating public transport and walking are exercises in giving into unpredictability, but also recognizing where you do have control. That’s basically what improvisation is, right? What public transport teaches me is that sometimes you have to surrender and by surrendering, you’re able to get somewhere. Yesterday, I had to take an Uber home, so I did not surrender myself to the transport system; I surrendered myself to another different kind of transport. If there’s one thing I learned a lot about the transport system, it teaches me incredible endurance and patience.

Credit: The Center for Questioning and Questioning and Questioning? (Baltimore edition), performance documentation by Lianghong Ke, 2023.

When you step into the bus, you’re inside this container of shared intimacy and vulnerability. We cannot ignore the fact that we sit together, and we’re only separated from each other by like a few inches. Sometimes when the bus is stuffed with people, it’s not even inches – it’s like there is no separation. You have a bunch of these strangers who sit together in silence. Even before the pandemic when no one wore masks, we even breathed the same air…it’s magical that no one kills each other.

I mean, sometimes people fight each other on the bus, but it’s such a peaceful existence. It’s just so rare for people from different walks of life with different concerns and directions – like they physically move in different directions, but also emotionally and socially – coming together here in this moment. We share a moment together that feels rare. There have to be so many different conditions that cater to the moment that we’re able to sit together and then come apart again. There’s something profound in this quotidian encounter of taking the bus.

JP: I’ve had tranquil rides on crowded buses before, but part of why I enjoy taking the bus is because it’s never totally harmonious. I remember a bus ride I took in England a few years ago where a rider loudly counseled her friend over the phone for 45 minutes about jealousy and unhealthy relationship patterns during an otherwise silent journey. To your point about the sense of “what can be accomplished between these two points,” I love how expansive that frame can be. It’s great how the bus ride can be a frame to explore negotiation.

BN: It’s always heartwarming for me to see people get together in a public setting and look out for each other, help each other. I like how someone drops something on the bus and another person picks it up for them. I like the way people stand up so someone can take a seat. There’s a way people kind of look out for each other on a bus that blurs the line between strangers and acquaintances. So, I don’t see why you couldn’t join the conversation or tell the rider to put her friend on speaker.

JP: How do you negotiate personal space in public settings?

BN: Honestly, I’m really shy in public. Sometimes you get the bystander effect on the bus when you respond the same way as the rest of the passengers. To break that and then choose to respond to something you see, it needs a path. I always think that’s brave.

It reminds me of situations where interventions just don’t happen, or someone calls the police on a homeless person, or an altercation happens. I mean, it can go wrong; it’s not safe. The bus is bold and magical, but also mundane. It can go right, but it also can go wrong depending on the way people respond to each other.

JP: I’ve had recurring dreams about public transit for the past two years, which is interesting because I generally bike or walk most places. I think these dreams are related to some unconscious fears about merging with the mass and losing my individual self. I realize that going deeper creates more opportunities for intimacy and fellowship, but I am also opening myself up to chaos. It brings me back to our earlier questions around control and your thoughts about the responsibility we have to one another as individual riders on the magic bus.

BN: I think about how there’s an inherent risk within this situation of opening yourself up. When I say “risky,” there’s emotional risk, the physical risk of literally stepping on the bus…but without risk there cannot be transformation.

There is this design consultant named Ida Benedetto. For her thesis project, she went on different field trips to see the commonality between vastly different kinds of events and gatherings. She came up with this term “pattern of transformation,” which basically means she broke down how an experience can be transformative and create patterns. By patterns, it just means the rule and the activity – how you set up the event that enables transformation to happen. She mentioned how when you create an experience, there has to be a risk you identify.

For example, at a sex party there’s emotional risk, but also physical risk. At a funeral, there’s emotional risk because you’re losing someone. With a wilderness trip there is physical risk because you could die. But through confronting this risk and identifying obstacles, we can transform ourselves on the other side for greater intimacy, greater understanding about ourselves, or just a sense of comfort about someone that has passed away.

I think deep down my obsession with taking public transport was about the need to find an emotionally moving and profound experience that I didn’t think was accessible to me in high school. I used to think you could only have a spiritual experience as part of a pilgrimage or at a temple or you’d have to take a psychedelic on a retreat. I think that taking public transport helped me realize my need for accessing profound experiences as part of daily life. I think that is a basic need that we have besides food, shelter, and physical safety.

Credit: The Center for Questioning and Questioning and Questioning? (Baltimore edition), performance documentation by Lianghong Ke, 2023

JP: Do you consider the need for transcendence a basic human need?

BN: I hesitate to use the word “transcendence” because it connotes an idea of going beyond the self or elevating oneself to become different. But I think about the need for profound experience more as a form of introspection. It’s like a need to find a profound shift in ourselves by really looking inward. It’s more like a downward transformation rather than the upward transformation suggested by the word transcendence.

JP: You mentioned earlier that during this period of your life in high school, you began to feel like Catholicism no longer had anything to offer you. I’m struck by how your drive to access profound experiences on a city bus seems to embody an essential part of Buddhism – looking inward to affirm life at all levels of reality, even at its most seemingly banal. It seems like those early experiences with public transit in the US seemed to kick-start your organic turn toward Buddhism. Were those profound experiences less accessible when you were a practicing Catholic?

BN: No, but you have to adapt to the symbolic language of Catholicism. Let’s say when someone suffers, I often hear, “Oh, you connect your suffering to the suffering of Christ and through that action of connecting your suffering to Jesus’ suffering, you find transcendence in your suffering.” That is really abstract – that is so abstract! What does that even mean? What is the emotional gesture? What are the gymnastics in my brain I have to do to get there?

What they mean is that Jesus suffered and through his suffering, he was resurrected. His endurance of suffering on the cross would end up leading to his transcendence; he got to heaven afterward because he suffered. If he can get through his suffering, then you can also get through it. I think by connecting your suffering to Jesus’ suffering to transcend your suffering is a way of saying there’s something holy in your suffering that you can learn from or you can think through. “Suffering is magical,” I guess.

JP: It’s interesting for me to have a context for aspects of your work that resonate with Catholic sacrifice. It’s just so different from the experience of profundity you described finding on the bus.

BN: I often think about how far we would go to take care of or protect someone else. I’m thinking about climate activists or activists who died in the effort to protect what they think is right. Or soldiers going to war and fighting for what they believe in. I’m always struck by this effort to sacrifice. The way people put their bodies on the line as a way to say, “This is the final commitment.” We can argue that it doesn’t have to be that way. It might not be right or wrong.

JP: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about productive, even healthy forms of self-inflicted violence. There’s violence you can do to an egocentric tendency. There are types of exposure therapy where you “flood” yourself with the object of fear at a high intensity for an extended period to overcome a phobia. Some people have counterphobic compulsions or defenses mechanisms where they attempt to escape fear through excessive bravery. People train in martial arts to channel violent or aggressive drives. When you talk about sacrifice, I think about it like a form of self-inflicted violence that contains a lot of possibilities. Violence seems like a necessary part of reaching some other stage of awareness.

BN: Yeah. Yes. Yes. Yes. That’s why I scream on stage.

JP: Let’s talk about the dynamic of commitment in your performances. I was so moved by the moment in your set last November where you put a plastic bag over your head and shoved a microphone in your mouth. We talked about the sincerity involved in doing something in a performance that on the surface might seem like it’s purely for shock value – you mentioned the “when” as opposed to the “how” or “why.” For me, there was a kind of innocence or purity to the plastic bag that made it kind of heroic. Maybe I just liked the sound you made!

BN: I have to confess that at the core of putting the plastic head over my face was just a shocking action to get someone’s attention. It’s not that deep.

JP: [Laughs] I disagree. It was deep! It affected me deeply.

BN: It’s not that deep. I mean, you can interpret that action as heroic in the sense that I committed to doing something without caring if I looked ugly or became an Internet meme. What is your definition of ‘heroic’?

JP: I will heroically resist the temptation to make a joke about how “not all heroes wear capes.” To me, the core of heroism represents a spirit of brave defiance that stands in direct opposition to forces that attempt to legislate its righteousness or right to exist (Ed’s note: not a dog-whistle that nods to or justifies any form of political extremism, FYI). I think transformation is essential to heroism. Ordinary people have the potential to become heroes through what Jung calls “overcoming the monster of darkness.”

There’s the romantic version of heroism involving the soldier putting their body on the line to slow/stop annexation of their homeland, but I think American culture has slowly begun to acknowledge quieter heroes. There’s also the heroic bus passenger deliberately trying to open themselves up to a profound experience during what might be an otherwise soul-crushing commute. I believe strongly that acts of heroism don’t need to be these bombastic gestures – I tend to be suspicious if they are. I see the trifecta of heroism as conviction, action, and transformation.

BN: By your definition of heroism, yes, I try to carve out space for me to do what I need to do. But when I hear the term ‘heroic,’ my definition is closer to when you put your body on the line and fight for what you think is right. Heroism is about putting your body on the line out of compassion. I really want to emphasize compassion here because you don’t do it for yourself; you do it for someone else. Well, actually compassion can also include you, too. I think compassion is important when defining the word ‘heroic.’

Yes, of course there is this element of bravery in the sense of taking risks in doing things other people might not do in a performance setting. There is this openness and this vulnerability, but I don’t think it’s heroic according to my definition because I did not put my body on the line to an extent that I’m gonna sacrifice myself. Sometimes I perform out of a compassionate spirit. Sometimes I don’t and it’s an egoistic effort.

Early performance artists sacrificed their safety in ways that are heroic to me, like Marina Abramović stabbing her hand with a knife or Tehching Hsieh punching a clock every hour for a year. They literally put their bodies on the line in the sense that they might endanger their well-being. I’m inspired by performance art’s sense of visceral, bodily risk-taking.

For me, performance is a safe container to try out this kind of emotional risk-taking. Let’s say instead of jumping off a cliff, I can put a plastic bag over my head for a few seconds and sing; a performance set-up allows me to satisfy some of the impulse to do something that might be risky to my safety.

Screenshot from “Bài Hát Ru Trở Lại Số 2120 (ai viết sử?) / Lullaby Revisited No. 2120 (who writes history?)”

JP: The physical sacrifices I associate with early performance art came out of a different cultural moment. What would it mean in 2023 if you lived with a coyote for a week or got someone to shoot you in the shoulder?

BN: Maybe the effort to sacrifice or put your body on the line at the end of the day is an effort to overcome the limits of your mind. I can overcome the limit of the mind without having to put my body on the line. To be honest with you, I’m not interested in shooting myself like Chris Burden did; I don’t like pain. I don’t like getting injured. God forbid I have an injury. I think I much prefer sitting on the couch or laying in my bed rather than doing extreme performance. I mean, sometimes I have to.

I think you say something really important about this shifting of cultural context. I guess there is this newfound understanding of just how important it is to dismantle the myth of a martyr artist. Like the artists who sacrifice themselves to the extent of overextending the limits of their body and wellness.

JP: Absolutely. I remember when we were emailing a few months ago, I thought it was so cool how casually but firmly you mentioned your need for rest after a busy weekend of performances. To me, this seems emblematic of a new kind of heroism I see in your generation: refusing to destroy yourselves in the name of some sacrificial art myth.

BN: I found after a year of singing almost nonstop that if I lose my voice, I basically lose all my gigs; there is a consequence to not having my voice. That makes me realize how important it is that I have to take care of myself because that has a consequence. If I get sick, basically nothing can happen.

Sometimes working over your limit, I think it can become like a form of cardio or endurance training. If you’re doing it right, I think it can expand your capacity. If you’re doing it wrong, you can burn yourself out.

I think with performance, it’s always such an intricate balance between knowing when to push, when to pull, and how to create the optimal conditions so you as a performer can keep going. To get nourishment from my performance is the hardest thing. But at least for now, it feels like the highest goal to get to a point where I receive as much as I give as a performer – or even receive more than what I give.

When I was in a theatre show, a dramaturg told me, “You have to think about how to do less.” I think about that a lot. “Maybe you don’t have to do much to get at a good performance. Maybe you have to do less.” By less, it doesn’t necessarily mean having less activity in the performance – yes, that too – but also: how do I do certain things but take less energy? How do I hit a note, but with less energy?

JP: As little effort as possible – no effort at all.

BN: Yes. That should make me rethink my performance approach. That performance you saw at the Red Room was only like 70% of my energy. 70% of my energy is already enough. I’m a hyper performer so if I do 100%, I’m gonna go nuts. It’s not going to get anywhere. It’s going to be really weird. It’s going to be extreme, but not in a good way. It’s going to be horrible.

I want to be strategic about my energy. By conserving some of my energy, I think what it did for me is that it helped me stay calm enough to see exactly what it is that I’m doing. When you’re so into it and when you put all of your effort into something, you lose sight of what actually happened.

JP: I was struck by what you said last time we talked about how you looked forward to a point where there was no medium that separated you and the audience.

BN: I just want to clarify that doesn’t mean people can come up onto the stage [laughs]. I want to have a direct way to impact someone with the least amount of effort or the least amount of media that gets in the way. I’m interested in directness because of my own experience moving through life having a lot of rich interactions with people, interactions with so much emotion.

Art at the end of the day comes down to emotion. The two of us talking can be a ball of attention, thoughts, and emotion happening – this is already rich enough. How do we find simplicity in communication so that we can really get a direct experience without having anything in between us? It goes back to taking public transport and walking because these are direct experiences. Bodies sitting across from each other are direct. A body in contact with a physical environment is direct.

I have to confess that I look at my phone a lot. I have moments of losing my connection with my physical body. I think of losing your body as running away from home. I made a conscious effort to come back to my body, but part of it was motivated by circumstance – I was forced to take the bus and walk because there was no other option.

I think the real question is how do we create more opportunity and more structure for us to come back to our bodies? That’s a big question because that basically means that we have to shift our work and labor culture. We have to shift how we make money. We have to shift the way we go about living. That is going all the way back to thinking about the bus; the bus for me was this mundane exercise in imagining what radical being together is in our body with other bodies.

Credit: The Center for Questioning and Questioning and Questioning? (Baltimore edition), performance documentation by Lianghong Ke, 202

JP: I understand why you relate so much to how Alvin Lucier’s “I’m Sitting in a Room” acknowledges simply being a body in space.

BN: Yes, that Alvin Lucier piece goes back to the basics of, “I am in a room and that is already enough for something to happen.” I think that is the basic insight I had this year doing art and performance is: I am in the room. My body is in the room and that is already enough for so many other things to happen.

There is a famous Vietnamese anti-war songwriter named Trịnh Công Sơn who wrote a lot of poetic lyrics that have all these vivid descriptions of nature, birth, and death. He was really active during the Vietnam war. I don’t think he thought of himself as “anti-war” as much as he thought he was speaking for what is right. He wasn’t affiliated with a political position.

JP: Is he kind of like the Victor Jara of Vietnam?

BN: Yeah, kind of like that… [Long pause] Well, now I have the urge to sing. Oh, how wonderful! I finally have the urge to sing. It’s not easy for this urge to sing to come out sometimes. Sometimes I ask for it, but it doesn’t come out. Suddenly I have the urge to sing for you. I’m going to sing the whole song and then provide a translation for you.

The song is called “Rừng xưa đã khép,” which basically means the old forest has closed. The lyrics go like this:

I saw you in your past life with sad stalks and dry grass
I saw you sit there and cry when the forest rained in the afternoon
Autumn forest, dry leaves, you have not returned
Winter forest you stand there alone

I saw you in your past life with with the lonely sun
I saw you sitting and singing when the forest is full of clouds
The autumn forest changed its leave. The cloud passed in sorrow 

The winter forest is cold, the rain is drizzly

I’m still waiting in each of these passing lonely days
I’m still waiting for you to come back, so life can present its fun again
Spring has come, please come back
The old forest has closed, please come out

It’s really basic: it’s just a person describing their vision of another person sitting, standing, singing in nature. Just a poetic description of a body in space and just a body perceiving another body. A description of embodied perception can influence my connection with my body or my thinking about how I perceive the world. I wish there were more songs like this. Maybe song is the perfect medium for people to return to their body.

Listening to a song reminds people of their bodies in that they remind us of our daily existence. I guess we practice singing as a way to embody our body or remember to come home to our body more.

Credit: The Center for Questioning and Questioning and Questioning? (Norfolk edition), performance documentation by JT and Cyle Warner, 2022.

JP: You just perfectly described the experience I had listening to you sing. I don’t speak Vietnamese so I experienced the melody in a few different ways – as a beautiful composition, as a performance – but I was really affected by how relaxed you are in your bodily home. It was cool to experience this melody as pitches shaped by breath, vibrations, resonances. I could hear how your ears were tuned.

BN: Yes, you get to hear me process the melody itself. You hear my body vibrate to produce this note. I love singing low pitches more because you can really feel the vibration in your body. It’s really nice.

One thing about having a low-pitched voice as a gay, queer person, I always feel like my masculinity is always denied; I never fit into the normal mode of masculinity. But one thing I’m really proud of is that I think I’m pretty sure my voice can hit lower notes than the guys that I date [laughs]. For me, a low-pitched note is how I reclaim my masculinity. If we’re thinking of low tone as a masculine thing, but there’s something really powerful about embodying low tones as a way to reimagine what it means to be masculine or feminine or queer.

JP: What you said reminded me of Drew Daniel’s essay, “All Sound is Queer” about the inherent queerness of sound that defies legibility, refuses to behave according to prescribed social or gender norms, and can pull us into unidentifiable experiences.

I’m also reminded of a moment during this radio project I worked on earlier this year with two women who were not fluent in music at all. I used some bland, beige royalty-free piece of music wallpaper that had a sustained note in a low register and one of them said, “I’m not sure about that piece of music. That bass note is just so…masculine.”

Her comment caught me off-guard because it didn’t occur to me that any parts of the frequency spectrum could be gender-coded – I acknowledge this might be an admission of my own innocence. But if I think about it, lower pitches are technically more “feminine” because they’re closer to the Earth’s “heartbeat”/electromagnetic resonance. I think the lower you go, you get into a part of the frequency spectrum – 3-30 Hz – that in terms of Earth’s mythology is actually feminine.

BN: Oh, that is so beautiful. One of my favorite singers was a female singer with a really husky voice I almost mistook for a male voice when I listened to her as a kid. What’s interesting is that she used to be able to hit higher notes, but as she got older, she smoked more cigarettes and that made her voice really low. But the huskiness of it, the raspiness of it, the texture and low pitch of her voice is what made it actually sound good to me.

I have this ongoing performance I’m taking a break from called The Center for Questioning and Questioning and Questioning? I act as the staff member of the center. People come in, ask me questions, and I exchange people’s questions for a tour.

We pick a location to walk and talk. Each location is a metaphor for us to think through our question. For example, if we walk to a cemetery, I might ask them, “What do you want to bury?” Sometimes I will sing and just listening to me sing, people are immediately returned to their bodies because in this performance setting there is no amplification or no microphone. I just sing.

Bao Nguyen (they/them) is an experimental vocalist and performance artist born in Vietnam and based in Baltimore. Through performance, sound, video and interactive media, Bao’s practice examines oral traditions to reconsider the history of Vietnamese nation-building and devise new connections between ourselves and the landscape. Bao completed their BFA at Maryland Institute College of Art and is pursuing their MFA at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They have exhibited in the U.S and abroad, including shows at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Ewha Woman University, Korea. In 2022, they were awarded the Judson-Morrissey Excellence in New Media Award from the New Media Caucus. Bao recently completed their residency at Yale Norfolk Summer School of Art

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