Belonging. Currently, it's all the rage. Literally and figuratively.
What does it mean to belong? Who should belong? What constitutes belonging? Are you born with it? Can you earn it? Buy it? Be awarded it or have it bestowed upon you? Why would someone want to belong or not want to belong? How long should belonging be withheld from someone who wants to belong? What should it cost to belong? Physically? Financially? Chronologically? Psychologically?
In our public discourse waged in the media (social, digital, and print), we obfuscate the issue with terms like immigration and naturalization and derivation (gain citizenship through birth). But what we're really discussing is who belongs and who doesn't. The rest of the conversation centers around which arbitrary criteria we use to either include or exclude certain people and what tools (such as financial audits, IQ & Personality test, and interviews) we use to determine whether they've satisfied that criteria.
On February 3, 2018, the Station Museum of Contemporary Art opened the exhibit in(di)visible, which is "an exhibition examining immigration, the residual effects of war, and the implications of assimilation, integration, and invisibility for Asian Americans." The show curated by Alex Tu and Sophie Asakura explicitly focuses on the Asian American immigration experience, but implicitly it addresses the universal issue of belonging.
As part of the exhibition, Hồng-Ân Trương and Hương Ngô’s performed AND, AND, AND - Stammering: An Interview on Sunday, February 4, 2018. The piece was originally part of Radical Citizenship, a project conceived and organized by Mary Walling Blackburn. Trương and Hương Ngô have performed it several times since 2010, including at the Aronson Gallery, Parsons The New School for Design, New York and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The performance enacts one of the many "tools" that political entities use, the interview, to demonstrate the arbitrary nature and absurdity of these criteria for who belongs.
The presentation of the piece is physically uncomplicated. Two interviewers sit across a desk from an interviewee. The interviewers set the tone by requiring the interviewee to read an oath of truth aloud and sign it. Then the interview begins. It's seemingly innocuous and mundane. The interviewers rattle off a series of questions in a very perfunctory, bureaucratic style. Full name? Place of birth? Physically distinguishing characteristics such as scars or tattoos? The interviewee answers them candidly. However, the slightest hesitation or pause in the interviewee's response provokes a question from one or the other interviewers. (paraphrased)
Are you certain?
Are you sure?
Is that all?
As if thoughtfulness or reflection or any failure to immediately and confidently regurgitate the minutest of details from one's day to day life is somehow an indication of either mendacity or unworthiness.
The drama builds slowly as the questions probe into the identities and intentions of the interviewee's extended family. (paraphrased)
Tell us the names and ages of your grandparents?
All of your nieces and nephews?
Do they have any of intention of moving here?
The line of questioning veers into past residences, past neighbors and acquaintances, and past trips. Finally, the interview turns into a confrontational interrogation, culminating with a series of questions about political preferences and activities. (paraphrased)
Can you name at least 2 ways in which you've participated in democracy?
Have you ever advocated the violent over throw of the government by force?
Have you ever disagreed with this governments policies?
Have you ever spoken out against this government?
Did you ever vote or speak against a political party in power?
Have you ever witnessed an injustice due to this system of government?
Did you act upon the injustice?
In this section of the interview, it moves away from innuendo about chain migration, disloyalty, and treason into a line of questioning resembling the Un-American Activities Committee or The Trial by Franz Kafka. The object of the interview transmogrifies from questioning whether one belongs to challenging one to prove that s/he belongs. Neither of the interviewers tone or demeanor changes during the interview. However, the interviewee slowly grows tense and defensive and the audience takes on its tension.
By the end of the interview, the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion. The interviewee will not be granted acceptance. It does not belong. More importantly, the interviewers have skillfully thrown shade on the interviewee. So much so that the audience is left wondering why anyone would ever want to belong to the organization that the interviewers represent....unless of course its for nefarious purposes.
If you'd like to see a similar performance, their 2010 performance is available here.