One of my favorite parts of Minnesota is the consistent exposure to new ideas and theories. Certainly some enabled the growth of Lao American arts and literature more than others, but more often than not, I’ve been left with some profoundly interesting concepts to engage with. One of the most important of these concepts is that of intermedia, which I’ve often applied in my personal art.
As we look at the 40th year since the end of the Laotian civil war and the start of the Lao diaspora this year, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the questions we need to continue asking to fully realize our potential. As refugees who’ve been here four decades, we cannot be satisfied with merely catching up. We must ask, how do we position ourselves ahead of the curve? Policies and organizing that is commited merely to getting us caught up to standards that will be outdated in five to ten years will only keep us beneath the wheel. We cannot accept this.
Our artists are among those best positioned to imagine who we can be. To visualize both the best and worst of what can happen. What might happen if Lao Minnesotans can form a functional Laotown? What might happen if we saw a sudden shrinking of our population to less than 8,000? Where might our community go if they feel the great Minnesota promise has failed them? This is where the principles of intermedia become vital. For non-artists, another way to think of this idea is to consider it like cross-training.
In Minnesota, one of the leading organizations that’s been a part of the Lao American renaissance has been Intermedia Arts, which has been supportive of not only my projects, but those of Lao American artists such as Mali Kouanchao, Saymoukda Vongsay, as well as Ova Saopeng and Leiliani Chan of Refugee Nation, to name a few. There we’ve convened exhibits such as the Legacies of War: Refugee Nation Twin Cities interdisciplinary exhibit, and the play Global Taxi Driver. They’re now in their 42nd year.
But what is the concept of intermedia, and why do we need to pay more attention to it?
Every artistic discipline has its own techniques and boundaries, its transferable principles and points of practice that are wholly unique to it. A jazz performance can be done without a paint brush and canvas in the room. A poem can be written without owning an easel or an amplifier. Writing a novel doesn’t always require a loom or a Fender Stratocaster, or performing it live in front of a studio audience. But there are spaces in art where we can bring these things in. That’s where intermedia begins.
I often consider Lao Americans a community well-suited for intermedia culture. We can appreciate the idea of existing within multiple borders. Roots in a Lao tradition with access to a multicultural America. There can be moments we feel we have limits, and moments when our opportunities seem boundless. There are those who want to hem us in merely as a minor iteration of “Asian America” and those who recognize how much of our experience relates to global issues in Africa, Latin America, Australia, Europe and so many other parts of the globe.
While researching possible intercultural exchanges between modern Laos and our Lao Minnesotan artists, it became clear to me how many in both communities are still deeply influenced by the questions Picasso was asking. He’s more often held up as an exemplar of what ambitious painters should aspire to compared to, say, Marc Leguay, Georgia O’Keefe, or Henri Matisse. I don’t often see Lao artists interested in emulating and responding to Modigliani or Giacometti, although a few are clearly informed by Warhol and Basquiat.
In Minnesota, I’m not always certain how well our Lao Minnesotan artists appreciate the groundwork laid out for us by the Minnesotans involved with the Fluxus movement, which was avant garde and inclined towards intense experimentation. Among the ideas the Fluxus movement embraced was a do-it-yourself sensibility that valued simplicity over complexity. It was often collaborative with a focus on using the materials at hand to develop an artist-centered creative practice. There wasn’t a drive or aim to participate in the commercialized art markets of the time. I appreciate this idea of creating art for the point of creating art, not to make a sale. To create something interesting, not something that’s a safe commodity.
That all grew into the modern concpet of intermedia. Internationally, one of the leading early figures in intermedia was Dick Higgins, who was a strong advocate of artists like Marcel Duchamp. In his time, Higgins boldly asserted in 1966 that Picasso’s voice was losing its relevance, writing “Part of the reason that Duchamp‘s objects are fascinating while Picasso‘s voice is fading is that the Duchamp pieces are truly between media, between sculpture and something else, while a Picasso is readily classifiable as a painted ornament.” OUCH.
In the Lao community, I don’t think many of us turn to Duchamp’s work like Fountain consistently for inspiration. But I do believe many of us in Minnesota have been engaged with art from an intermedia approach. We can see the results clearly in art such as Saymoukda Vongsay’s play Kung Fu Zombies vs. Cannibals which synthesized theater with classic 20th century horror and exploitation films, hip hop, and Theravada buddhist metaphysics. It’s very difficult to find Lao poets who don’t regularly engage with haiga and ekphrasis, experimenting with graphopoetics and photopoetics. Does this approach always “work”? Certainly not, but that’s the inner beauty of true art. Even our artistic “missteps” can produce interesting things that challenge our sense of who we and can be.
I would hope that Lao artists engaging with intermedia as an artistic concept see it as an opportunity to be open to outcome, not attached to outcome. That there’s a great deal of liberating space for them to explore their diverse interests and focus on whether their creations are expressive rather than conforming to pre-assigned designations of what art can and cannot be.
But going into the next year, and arguably, the next decade ahead, bracing for fifty years in the US, what are some of the great artistic ideas you think we should be looking at to build and transform our communities?