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December 21, 2021

COMMITTING TO THE FAKE: An Interview with Anh Vo




By CAITLYN TELLA
Caitlyn and Anh Vo discuss psychotherapy, performance, transcendence, and familial ghosts.

Anh stewing on stage, Summer 2021. Video by Caitlyn Tella.


I wanted to interview Anh Vo after watching this video of Red (For Communism). Performed at Judson Church in 2019, the dancer sails across the floor, skipping in clipped cadence, occasionally making perky, ceremonious leaps. I watched on my laptop, entranced by the lively near-precision of their steps and commitment to keep skipping for an annoyingly long time. As nothing new continues to happen, joy, set to communist revolutionary music, accumulates, and to my surprise, given the frequently bland conceit belying so much duration-as-content performance, so does a palpable lack of pretentiousness.


When the skipping ends, Anh jokes, “The white abstract part of the performance is over” and proceeds to attract an audience member to the open floor of Judson Church to play a little cross-examination game: “Have you ever been a communist party member?” “No.” ... "Have you ever been on the 23rd street of Manhattan?" “Yes.” “Are you aware the Communist Party USA headquarter is located at 235 West 23rd Street?” (Audience laughs), etc.


At the top of that performance the lights go out and a voiceover of Joseph McCarthy espouses evergreen American beliefs that communists have no freedom of thought, no freedom of expression. In the dark of this historical trace, I ponder the levels of self-denial I have achieved to manage to pay rent.





Anh at Herbert Von King Park in Brooklyn, where this interview was conducted. Photos by Caitlyn Tella.


The first time we talked, Anh told me they were dealing with the ghost of their grandfather: in psychotherapy four days a week and also with a shaman. Anh had experienced profound technical difficulties before performing BABYLIFT at Target Margin in February—a memory for no audience named after Operation BABYLIFT, the 1975 mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam to the United States that resulted in a plane crash killing 78 of them. After spilling coffee on their laptop the day before the show, Anh realized they needed professional, high-order guidance from a shaman before scheduling any further performances. “At least that’s how the message got translated into my consciousness,” they said.


Since then, I’ve seen Anh perform twice. In sweaty New York summer they stewed an aromatic soup on stage. Then, as if trapped in a spell, repeated an elegant loopy step, producing increasing sweat. In autumn at MOtiVE Brooklyn, I saw their latest iteration of Non-Binary Pussy, sexy propaganda fueled by Anh’s popstar persona, featuring video, intricate choreography and great raps like MY PUSSY: ZEN DANCE SLAPPING. YOUR PUSSY: BLAND STRESSED NAPPING.

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BABYLIFT at Target Margin Theater, 2021. Credit: Yekaterina Gyadu.





CAITLYN
What made you start working with ghosts in performance?

ANH
It was a very unconscious decision. I think people here have no relationship to death and in Vietnam there are many rituals around the dead and war. It felt culturally important.

I come from performance studies which theorizes this fake-real relationship—how the fake is always the real and the real is never truly real. So I decided to fake trying to conjure ghosts. I went into my memory of my father performing these traditions and just stayed with that memory. I didn't try to google it. I had no idea what I was doing. I was like, “am I offending ghosts right now?” And that’s the price I would have to pay.

CAITLYN
Did you have a sense of—oh maybe I’m on to something? How did you register a connection?

ANH
Things gained clarity over time. For BABYLIFT I did a five hour ritual before the performance, very rhythmical. And a lot of singing. That was the part where the ghost was there. My grandfather. I almost fainted. In Vietnam we usually call people who are susceptible to ghosts and haunting as having “weak aura.” People who are always pale and dizzy—fainting is one of the signs that the ghost incorporated into your body.

CAITLYN
When you were growing up were you interested in your ancestry?

ANH
Not really. That’s where the paradox is. I had to leave Vietnam to have some awareness of how important war is, for example. We never talked about war. Why would they talk about it? I know nothing of my mom’s life pre-1975. Or really, pre-1986 when capitalism was integrated. We just have an idea that there was a lot of suffering. Only when I left I felt the haunting of the war nagging at the present, informing why people are the way people are in Vietnam. But I have no investment in trying to find the truth of my family’s history. I think more of a unit where historical relations play out, where there’s this suffocation to death of a certain way of life, a certain possibility that could have gone somewhere else in history. Instead the U.S. suffocated it. Now here we are.

CAITLYN
So you’re exploring this undiscovered place that could have existed—the unknown.

ANH
I think so, and that’s why it’s so speculative. I don’t want to do an anthropological exercise of interviewing my parents. That’s not how the truth comes out. It comes out in random ways, so my sensibility now is to pay attention to how these historical traces emerge.

CAITLYN
Speaking of traces, you use a lot of repetition in your work. How do these things form?

ANH
I think it has to do with ritual. I’m drawn to repetition of very small movements. Committing to the repetition weakens your connection to this world and you transport somewhere else.

CAITLYN
Would you say it’s like a trance?

ANH
Very much like a trance. Like, transcendence. The shaman said, “I don’t know how dance works, but when I see you dance I see you leave your body.” And my analyst really dove into that. She’s like, “Hmmm, you know, a lot of people describe a traumatic experience in terms of leaving the body and watching it from above.” She connects so many things to me leaving my body. I have a very clear investment in transcendence. Devising techniques to transcend myself. I black out every time I perform.

CAITLYN
What’s your relationship to the audience in all that?

ANH
I’m really invested in asking, “Why are we watching these things? Why do you have to show it to somebody? Why are people watching me do this?”



BABYLIFT at Target Margin Theater, 2021. Credit: Yekaterina Gyadu.

CAITLYN
Sounds like those questions motivate you, but they could easily be—

ANH
Debilitating? The opposite, it’s very motivating. For me theater is a very colonial structure—the watching, the expectations. The audience stares, they sit in the dark, people sit in silence, as if they don’t exist. The invisible eye is so violent. Especially when it comes to me working with these Vietnamese materials, that anthropological gaze is so annoying to me. This curiosity of “art that is exotic.” Of course it’s subtle, but as a performer I feel it so clearly. That informs why I don’t let people sit and watch in peace. (Laughs) They have to be implicated in the work. I want to lean into the power dynamic, make it explicit.

CAITLYN
Do you think sexuality is part of how you do that too?

ANH
Oh yeah, 100%. The way I approach sex in my work is actually very psychoanalytic. Elusive, unreachable. In analysis, sex has a lot to do with repression, especially repression of infantile sexuality which is more sensational. They say that as an infant your body is an erogenous zone, open to inspiration, sexual possibilities, sexual potential. And then they say that as you grow up there’s discipline, punishment, shame coming in that force you to repress your infantile sexual surge. Of course you can never fully repress it, so it comes out—in symptoms, in dynamics.

CAITLYN
The humor in your work is also very unexpected and direct, it feels improvised.

ANH
Yeah, it just comes out. Usually the way I work—I don’t choreograph. I sit in the studio and develop what I call repertoire. I have a repertoire of movement, of narrative, of moments. That’s how I improvise. I’m much more interested in durational form where the repertoire can actually be responsive to the moment. Although I feel like with Non-Binary Pussy it’s going to be precise, it’s going to be like dancey dance. A lot of audience engagement too.

CAITLYN
Getting the audience to dance?

ANH
Paying them to. I have to have enough money first. (Laughs.) Paying people on the spot.

CAITLYN
Then they can feel like it was their autonomous choice.

ANH
I don’t think there’s autonomy in a performance space. I hope to create a communal space where people are not so fixated on this boundary of you and I. There are other models, more productive to risk taking and play.

CAITLYN
That’s your agenda.

ANH
It is. I use the word propaganda. I want to create a space where people feel compelled enough to play with me. I never just force, I draw them in—it’s a difficult task. You’re watching me, I’m giving you all of my existence right now, I’m asking a fragment of yours. Reciprocation. That’s why I hate “audience participation.” Asking the audience to volunteer and shit. Acting like you’re inconveniencing the audience, whereas it’s always the fucking audience that’s devouring you.

CAITLYN
That’s a good word.

ANH
They devour you with their gaze.





Film stills from a video version of Non-Binary Pussy by Anh Vo.

CAITLYN
What do you make of persona?

ANH
I definitely have characters, but not explicitly. Each character is a repertoire to me.

CAITLYN
Is it a defense mechanism against the audience’s gaze? (Laughs.) That was a very psychoanalytic way to put it.

ANH
(Laughs.) I think defense mechanism is part of it. A mask does that. It's an external thing that protects your inside but also manages to give you access to the inside you don’t know as well. Non-Binary Pussy is very clear pop star. I felt I needed to embody a charismatic revolutionary. I used to want to be a revolutionary leader, that’s where I draw from.


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ANH
This analysis process has been fucking me up.

CAITLYN
How long have you been doing it?

ANH
Nine months. I’d never done therapy before. Classic Scorpio. The first therapy I do has to be four times a week. I would never say “I work with trauma.” Of course I do, but the word is overused. The way people mobilize the word as some sort of description of a traumatic event doesn't get at the obliqueness of trauma—how it always shows up when you don’t expect it and how you never know what your real trauma is. That’s the point of trauma! It exceeds your comprehension. It comes out as repetition, as action. That’s something so radical about psychoanalysis—they don’t try to know. Of course the eventual goal is awareness of your patterns, transforming them to a point where it’s healthy in your life.

CAITLYN
Do you get the sense of your analyst as an audience, having control over you?

ANH
A performance space is very similar to what they call transference—the space between me and the analyst and what happens there. She’s not explicitly the audience, if anything she’s the performer. She’s fucking with me. I don’t know anything about her. The analyst has to push you beyond your boundaries and I get very frustrated. I feel very persecuted. That’s her word. A little bit violated. But it’s fundamental to the analysis process because you have to be pushed beyond your resistance, because you always resist their interpretation. That curious connecting of different events—I fuck with that. But sometimes she gives an interpretation and I am just like, “What the fuck.” But then I sit with it. And I feel like that’s how I work with audiences.

CAITLYN
It sounds like it acclimates you to not knowing yourself.

ANH
Yes, I talked with a college professor recently and she was saying a lot of psychoanalysis is about not trusting yourself. Learning to not trust yourself.

CAITLYN
That’s radical.

ANH
It’s really radical. To not trust yourself. (Laughs) Of course you cannot trust yourself! You cannot trust the stories you tell yourself about yourself.




BABYLIFT at Target Margin Theater, 2021. Credit: Yekaterina Gyadu.



CAITLYN
So what do you stand on?

ANH
Exactly—the standing on is always some sort of illusion, a coping thing, to help you move through life. I was very shocked hearing from my analyst that the club, which is a place I dearly love, is a space of mania for me. Shocked. Of course, all the fucked up kids turn to the club, turn to the night. It makes sense. People need that sort of escape, or manic transcendent euphoria, the ones that have been fucked up by society. That’s where I started dancing, really drunk with music. Being in a crowd. Blacking out.

CAITLYN
It’s very Dionysian.

ANH
Yeah yeah yeah. Very Dionysian. My work does strive for that place.

CAITLYN
If you didn’t have that outlet it would be a pathology.

ANH
For me, that’s where beauty is. I see her point. But I still believe in transcendence, I still believe in leaving my body. I definitely want to—I was going to say “do something” about this mania thing. But the whole point is if you do, you’re in the manic mode (Laughs.) I often try to do instead of feel. Which, yeah, in order to be a productive person you can’t feel too much.





Anh Vo:

Anh Vo is a Vietnamese choreographer, dancer, theorist, and activist. They create dances and produce texts about pornography and queer relations, about being and form, about identity and abstraction, about history and its colonial reality. Currently based in Brooklyn, they earn their degrees in Performance Studies from Brown University (BA) and New York University (MA).

Their choreographic works have been presented nationally and internationally by Target Margin Theater, Dixon Place, MR @ Judson, Brown University, Production Workshop, Centro de Arte Dos de Mayo (Madrid), greenroom (Seoul), Montréal arts interculturels (Montréal), among others. Their artistic process has received support from Brooklyn Arts Council, Foundation of Contemporary Arts, Women and Performance, New York Live Arts, Leslie-Lohman Museum, Brooklyn Arts Exchange, Jonah Bokaer Arts Foundation, Tisch/Danspace, and the Performance Project Fellowship at University Settlement.

As a writer, they are the founder and editor of the performance theory blog CultPlastic, the Co-Editor of Critical Correspondence, and a frequent contributor to Anomaly. Their writings focus on experimental practices in contemporary dance and pornography. www.anhqvo.com



Caitlyn Tella:

Caitlyn Tella is a poet and performer based in New York. Her poetry appears in Fence, Witch Craft, Dirt Child, Nat. Brut and MARY: A Journal of New Writing. She has two chapbooks forthcoming, from Double Cross Press and from Mondo Bummer. www.caitlyntella.com




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