Phase 1

Archive #2 — vannavu.com

The tiny iron! And high school lover’s initials, oh boy.

Wish I did book repair work the summer after graduating. I’m realizing I like doing maintenance work perhaps more than average. Doing all the little things that help everything operate, work, and stay organized. All in balance to the bigger actions. I write a lot of fragments nowadays.

all the other sketches are as wonky as the top half and not as ooh as the bottom half; that’s why this one is pictured

Trading in square pics for a square brush. I understand this brush shape, whereas pointed brushes and pens continue to merely be an inking-in-outlines tools for me.

+ nepantla [1] / learned about through May-Li Khoe & Federico Ardila
+ nakasi [1][2] / learned through the band Mong Tong (one of the members collects Taiwanese sci-fi book covers)

It has been a month of work and less so words. In my drafts from earlier this month are nepantla (in-between-ness), nakasi (in Taiwanese and Japanese cultures, parlor/bar-accompaniment-music associated with the working class), and thoughts about supremacist perfection:

We are taught perfection.

Before design school, one often doesn’t see all the little so-called imperfections. And then you learn how to judge all those details, what’s “right” and “wrong.” What wasn’t distracting before is suddenly an itch. And guess who cares and is aware about those details: not most people. Do we talk about language and communication enough? Formal aspects are easier to talk about, quicker to point out. And then when looking at other people’s work, it becomes easy to dismiss it as unprofessional if a non-crucial detail is a little off. And not just to dismiss it, but also the person behind it.

Perfection isn’t the point.

There are a lot of sentiments about freeing oneself and others from perfection. Unpacking what that actionably and perceptively means is subjective. Do I believe in the rules and personally unlived truths I’ve absorbed?

(p.s. the new album Shore by Fleet Foxes is lovely.)

from the hit documentary Systematically Sloppy

Quotes from “Can We Share a World Beyond Representation?” (February 2020) by Irmgard Emmelhainz, who argues for doing away with “representation, recognition, and difference and replace them with frames for relationality and reciprocity”:

I think of these quotes from The Darker Side of Western Modernity by Walter Mignolo:

How the absence of body- and geo-politics in Western thinking — removal of body and place — is wholly colonial, the very definition of it.

Back to Emmelhainz article:

Could representation (potential homogenization, nonconsensual agency) be as deceitful as inclusion and diversity (i.e. assimilation and tokenism) which was preceded by desegregation (i.e. assimilation)?

(Cue intersectionality.)

This has been by moral struggle with understanding the marginalized groups that I am part of, but not feeling like I represent anyone other than myself. And I think again of being in the middle space: of being marginalized but then afforded privileged opportunities because I am part of marginalized groups. Can I only profit from my own oppression? I think of the artists, etc. who were given voice, attention, finally, but because someone in the group they represent died unjustly or was belittled by the very industry that now has felt pressured to give voice to ___ artist. How can I trust that I do represent, without knowing how much I have actually assimilated by accepting opportunities? But how else?

I also cannot say I am represented by a group or a person, but groups and persons, and even then parts of groups and persons, which really means parts of everyone and peoples. I bring up a question I’ve asked before: am I a synthesis of everyone or a refinement of myself? The fallacy in this question is the “or” dichotomy. We may be individuals, but we are pluralistic.

What do we share more often than the architectures that contain us?

Representatives (individuals) part of marginalized groups are seen as a success for the advancement of those groups. But a representative is not the group itself. But we must start and inspire somewhere. But is the start to that answer through an individual breakthrough, or as Emmelhainz concludes, through mutual aid and reciprocity? Breaking through together, not individually through the helping hand of the privileged. But how can you under such grand systems that constantly erode the sustainability of any alternative? One of the greatest struggles is having enough money and resources. And guess who holds the money and resources? AH.

And how do you respond without violence, the requirement in past revolutions?

communities of morally concerned spectators

Irmgard Emmelhainz

Emmelhainz ends with an appropriately nebulous proposal of relationality and reciprocity. Relationality makes sense to me more so than representation. It implies a horizontality that is missing in representation, which connotes a singular face speaking for a faceless mass.

Just go read the entire article which I have basically quoted half of here. It’s not that long yet says so much. I understand it, but am still trying to understand it. The context of decolonial readings like Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth helps informs and contextualizes.

nail salon :: graphic design
creative labor largely in service of the rich white corporate (but who isn’t under service of rich white corporations)

Christianity :: white supremacist patriarchy
saviorism, worshipping individuals, a virgin giving birth, martyrdom, chants, prewritten prayers
living in a matriarchal household under a patriarchal society isn’t great either

design :: competition
Modes of Criticism articles: “Graphic Design Systems” & “It’s Nice That Intro
hierarchies, standing out, grabbing attention, networking, awards, self-commodification

American dream myth

The partial poem above starts off the article “Sleep Walks the Street, Part I” by Metahaven, who argue that “metaphors, metonyms, and allegories have become scalable political technologies obfuscating, undermining, and instrumentalizing the realities they represent.”

Another quote:

It is a reminder that the internet has long been a dimensional layer to world, not separate from it. For some, Facebook is their entire internet. We are still catching up to media literacy. The speed of everything is inhuman.

I viewed design often as visual metaphor. Design composition is a form of collage. Beautiful when poetic. Eventually gimmicky when clever. Insidious when deceitful. Somewhat inaccessible when innovative.

Metaphor is ingrained in how we think, speak, understand, make. Why do we find so much meaning in metaphor? Has its appropriation stained it? Can it be trusted?

When do words speak louder than actions?

Raw emotion is indigestible. We often understand it through a medium, a material, a product. It has to be processed and sold. Is that evidence of inhumanity? Or is it a result of emotion’s potency?

Storytelling and language feel essential to being a human though.

So often in design and art, metaphor is another layer to interpret. It complicates the process. What and how does it mean to be straightforward? Why has Trump’s language angered the progressives while illuminating rural white America and conservative immigrants? Do we truly listen to those who do not speak like us?

Designers are agents of culture. And what is culture under a patriarchal capitalist white supremacy?

from 11.19.2019

These lettering sketches are a synchronization of thinking and drawing. The words come as I draw/write them. It’s a slowed down version of journaling, forcing me to be succinct. It reveals the primary worries, or sometimes non-worries. It allows me to come to words in a present way that is not as immediate as speaking (which I am not good at).

When nothing anxious is on my mind, the pages end up being random layered chaos as I try to search for something:

from 11.14.2019

from 10.30.2019

by Hieu Minh Nguyen, a poet around my age who is from Minnesota (source)

Originally I typed the poem, but realized that a lot of poems aren’t made for web typography.

It is eerie how poems and prose I’ve written in the past hold similar themes and metaphors to “Changeling”. I regret not attending one of Paul Tran’s poetry workshops, as we were both students at WashU. My friend attended and loved it. Paul started off the workshop asking what everyone’s rose, thorn, and bud was that day. I don’t know why the Vietnamese Students Association never reached out to them. Man is it cool as heck to keep learning about these Vietnamese poets instead of hearing from my mom about another faceless cousin becoming a doctor.

First semester junior year, second semester of being in the design major, I was thrown into an existential and philosophical tailspin (which I didn’t realize that’s what it was until later, though I remember my professor Ben, who was frustrated at my struggle, asking me if I was having an existential crisis) in trying to make an editorial book containing “The Crystal Goblet” (the required text) by Beatrice Warde and “Paradox on the Graphic Artist” (my chosen text) by Jean-François Lyotard. When I struggled before, it was no big deal. I moved on and improved, in bliss of being in design school, but thinking in the back of head, when will I be jaded by all of this?. Pretty soon apparently.

But this struggle was less about skill and more about deep critical thinking about design and my place in it. And because I was not prolifically producing and iterating, the project felt like a failure, even though it was not a bad book. There seems to not be room for theory in undergrad, or I just didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. In any case the thinking was crucial to what was to come, and I regret nothing.

For some reason I thought back to this time and a message I wrote that I wanted to print photocopies of and distribute on my peers’ desks anonymously. But I was too scared to do it. It probably would have been confusing and weird anyway. Manifestos are the language of patriarchal white supremacy.

December 2017

Notes that followed that writing:

Cool if you like it in the end, but I myself need to feel proud of what I’ve done. I’m over all the neat, well-done stuff because, well, I’m not learning that much anymore. I’m just doing what I already know. What an uninspiring way to live. I almost avoid confidence in pursuit of staying humble. There is so much I still don’t know. Endless solutions. That’s the addiction of design: there is no single, definite solution like there is in math. So the solution, the perceived ending, can always be improved, which means there is always something to learn. But I guess I’m done learning all the little things that don’t significantly matter in the long run. A lot of those little things are in pursuit of perfection that that don’t really benefit anyone or anything. They’re kind of just a way of showing off how anal you are and how good you are at spotting little things. But what about the big things? Yeah, what you’ve made is nice and neat but what does it say? What can I learn from it? What questions does it raise? What do I now see or know after looking/reading your design? That’s what I care about. I hate wasting my time on things that offer nothing. Especially those things that are parasitic or selfish. So that’s why I’m wary of ad agencies and the paradigm of the job search. Because the goal is for yourself to get a job, and that involves using other people to get there in a way. This artificiality is rubbing off on me. So is this why I isolate myself? Because I can feel myself becoming all like them? If we’re all the same, how the hell is this world going to change. It’s not being different for the sake of different but to offer another perspective, to expand the visible field of possibilities so that a better solution — always temporary and changeable — can be discovered. Then we can take what we’ve learned from that and continue onward.

I’ve noticed that I tend to forget what I’ve written as it becomes ingrained in my actions instead.

There’s an infinite past… And I come to poetry because I want to write the primary source documents for my mother and I.

Paul Tran (source). Paul studied history and has found that poetry (an act of creation) is a way to address the present and expand the histories of Vietnamese Americans that white scholars and writers cannot.

Before typography came language.

I have been thinking of authorship and what centering history means, as much of it is displayed through individuals and individualized events, objects, etc. when truly we are all an accumulation. What is left unsaid, and therefore eventually forgotten? Yet, the now perpetually becomes the past. Past and future are extended. But why think of past, present, future separately when they exist all at once?

It is incredibly powerful to be able to hear queer Vietnamese American creatives and thinkers. It has been hitting me to realize that only contemporaries exist for this perspective, as the Vietnam War ended only 45 years ago. I am part of the precedent.

I wondered why I had a hard time truly taking the advice of older people. Part of it is probably a tendency-to-not-listen-to-adults problem, but also they are fundamentally not me and I am not them. My brothers and I have always learned the hard way, i.e. by doing. It is still a mystery to me the what and how of getting help, when so often it is just a matter of getting me to do what I am thinking. Getting help is often getting validation or some form of permission. When will I entirely be autonomous?

I think I am most autonomous when I make, as thinking and doing synchronize. Then critique and feedback and deadlines are structures for maintaining momentum more than anything.

Still need to do this:

After looking at these questions again and typing them out, I am realizing that I already am doing a lot of these.

Ocean Vuong shared on his Instagram story one poem that changed his life:

It reminded me of my college admission essay which began with “My mom is trying to create a clone of her idealistic self.” My mother was always telling me to drink more milk so that I would grow taller and have stronger bones, a nagging advice that continued throughout high school. Then I elaborate on my disbelief of Catholicism and consequential performative confirmation to appease my unknowing parents. The first time I went to confession was to tell the priest that I was not Catholic. No one really knows how to react to the quiet kid who eventually speaks up to hyperventilate that they reject everything, how to respond to someone who is so vehemently and clearly saying no.

In my essay I see this experience as a rotting piece of my heart decomposing and become fertilizer for the self.

Drinking “Christ’s blood” didn’t teach me anything, but not drinking it did.

I never did drink the milk my mother poured.

I originally wrote the essay for a memoir prompt in an English class taught by Ryan Stripling, a very kind dude who sponsored the literary magazine crew and was one of those life-changing English teachers. He would write a letter to every one of his students at the end of year about how their presence contributed to the classroom, or how they grew, and encouraging how they can grow. He believed that “words create worlds.” I had intended to write a thank you letter after graduating college as I never did in high school. At the end of last year, I went to see what he was up to as I last heard he was writing a book. I found out he just died of cancer in a span of half a year. That was the first time that someone in my life died. I still am hesitant on rushing, but perhaps it is naïve to continue assuming that I have plenty of time. No one knows that.

Paul Tran is another contemporary Vietnamese American poet. A snippet from one of their interviews:

For some reason in October 2018, I wrote “Everyone’s got their own voice. I’m not European.” on the back of a handout that was also covered with sketches for typeface idea. I still do not know what I was responding to. I guess all of it really.

Post-metaphor

tendency to compare to things rather than ideas, processes

teachers often analogizing: is it actually helpful?

a typeface is not a metaphor

Middle space

to exist in the air between people, not helium-minded all the way up in earth’s atmosphere

from Pedagogy of the Oppressed — Paulo Freire

I read the above statement back in June after being introduced to the reading via Modernity + Coloniality. The oppressed becoming the oppressors is so common. I want the notion of the oppressed liberating themselves and their oppressors to be true, but it feels so impossible.

I read Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner in the last semester of undergrad (about a year and a half ago) after hearing it mentioned in a podcast with Laurel Schwulst. It is a book students should consider reading (good teachers know they are students as well). I returned to my notes on the book after a friend brought up ideas about pursuing anti-institutional alternatives for design education.

Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.

From Chapter 5 of Teaching as a Subversive Activity

For a while, I’ve realized, I have been thinking of not approaching design as an essay, to not assert or prove a point or problem solve, but to allow it as a process for exploration and discovering insights. There is a deficiency in learning how to ask questions and what questions to ask. As malleable and not wholly scientific as design is, it is insidious to think that it is a practice of conclusions. Part of the issue lies in having to give designers leverage and validation, but we must admit that we do not know everything. We can post-rationalize til eternity but what are we reasserting by doing that? Why do we have to convince ourselves to such a degree? Is it okay to accept uncertainty, to admit genuinely and not dismissively “I do not know”? What is intuition and “feels right”? Do we assert and create culture or reflect it? Are we humble, or competitive supremacists?

I am going to try reading this book again, or at least revisit Chapter 5, titled “What is worth knowing?” as it is asks a series of questions that I answered back in 2019 and would like to answer again now. These are some of the potent questions, along with my answers from March 2019:

  1. What do you worry about most?

    Submitting to capitalist requirements, feeling defeated and meaningless. Building ingenuine networks just for me. Misleading someone. People unable to be independent and secure their own backbone.

  2. What are the causes of your worries?

    The professionalization of curricula, professors with blasé attitudes who reinforce the client mindset over individual expression. Templated advice that reinforces convention, doesn’t question truth. Lack of depth in relationships. Insecure people with no passion or opinion.

  3. What bothers you most about adults? Why?

    Those with no opinion or desire to reconsider; they perpetuate conventional systems or hold an authoritarian stance that doesn’t support different perspectives. The neutral are also discouraging; they seem to not care; if they have no exigence, how can you? Ones who don’t go for ideas: stagnant. Those who don’t encourage or push or just fucking care.

  4. What, if anything, seems to you to be worth dying for?

    Liberation

  5. How did you come to believe this?

    It is easier to fly weightless.

  6. What seems worth living for?

    Witnessing where all the good people go and what they do. The growth of deep relationships. The potential of finding a genuine group.

  7. How did you come to believe this?

    I am getting closer to it every day. The things I make say more than I ever will be able to, as well as the actions of good-willed people. Without them, I would not be here. Each day I am becoming less timid, especially by engaging with people who are bold and honest, but not sensationalists. They are remarkable in the basic desirable traits, which are unfortunately hard to come by. And you can only grow by crossing with new perspectives and accepting support. Hearing of people’s journeys is always a source of optimism.

  8. At the present moment, what would you most like to be doing? Five years from now? Ten years from now? Why? What might you have to do to realize these hopes? What might you have to give up in order to do some or all of these things?

    I would like to be loving every minute of school, of making things I’m learning about and engaging in insightful discourse. What I would most like to be focusing on is type design. 5 years from now I hope to be doing type design and related things, or studying it at KABK or elsewhere where I can focus on it in an interdisciplinary way. 10 years from now I hope to be teaching and working in an independent studio, either by myself or with 1 to 2 other people who share similar values but also all bounce off of and push each other. Maybe I will be in a midwest city to continue growing access to type education. I want to do all of these things because type is a beautiful intersection of craft, technical acuity, passion, language, etc. but also because I want to be fueled by others and to fuel others. To do these things I must have independent drive and uncompromising commitment and to a degree, money. I may have to give up either maximal income, securities that large corporations offer, or suspend my beliefs for a little bit. There will be dissonance.

Took a while, but after giving a casual and not well practiced/prepared portfolio share on Zoom yesterday, I was motivated to finish configuring a new reference repository as it’s a really nice way to document interests and thoughts. I included a screenshot from this 2018 entry:

This is still true.

I start this repository with that as a reminder of non-linearity.

Currently I am in a Display Type class through Type@Cooper. The class is usually in person in NYC, but due to the pandemic it’s online. And because racial injustice has come back to the fore, the instructor was successfully able to fundraise multiple scholarships for BIPOC. So there I am as a non-binary Vietnamese recent first-gen grad sometimes-freelancer grocery store worker from Bentonville, Arkansas who currently lives in Minneapolis.

I am grappling with what this all means. What is my identity? What does it mean to be who I am and to have been enabled to go to a prestigious school via needs-based scholarship and to jump into the design school sans portfolio? To have immigrant conservative parents from the rural South Vietnam, a mother who stopped school at middle school and a father who went through to high school, still chasing the so called American dream, their goals largely influenced by their privileged white Southern customers in their former nail salon? Wherein the strongest genuine tie I have to whatever my perspective of Vietnamese culture is through food? Does it really make sense to mine the visual culture of Vietnam, contemporary and historical, when I am not really part of it? When I was not taught written Vietnamese? When I was naturally drawn to the aesthetics of modernism since youth, ignorant of the manifestos, capitalism, industrialism, colonialism behind it all?

Part of the struggle is how different every Asian American is. And how new Asian America is. There is a history, but do I come from it? Rather I became a part of it the moment I was born. Is it valid to just create and to shape that history now? To not look back since I don’t really come from any of it?

Maybe that all sounds super ignorant. Bentonville, Arkansas is not Vietnamese-American populated like Texas or Cali. The Vietnamese restaurants in NW Arkansas end up assimilating to the tastes of Ozarkians: cabin themed, gentrified outdoorsmanship. But what say of me given my education and draw to the modernist works of Europeans? I am not just as white-washed? But what else would I be? The best I can say is that I am just Vanna. An accumulation. Representative of what?

Is existing enough? Must everything be argued? I cannot rationalize the entirety of the self. “I think therefore I am” is a privileged statement.

I was momentarily is a short-term Visual Criticism & Theory class (until realizing I overloaded myself with work, more work, and school), but one of the first exercises we did was writing down how we are privileged and not privileged. It’s not so easily categorized, but dependent on context and who we are in proximity to given the moment. Largely I exist in the middle space, which means a certain level of empathy but also power. I am figuring out how to make the best of that to give leverage to others. So often in the past I simply lead by example, somewhat alone. Asking questions but unsure if anyone else truly pondered them too. I don’t know if continuing to do as that is enough, if sharing is enough. One of my biggest weaknesses is collaboration. Why is that? I also rely on the nicety of others to spread the word about me. I do not assert or market myself really. As I don’t really want to scale or submit myself. I guess a large part of that is that I am super isolated and not part of a community. Without that there is no horizontality but an insidious amount of individuality.

Well this is what happens when I put off a reference repository. A dam breaks.