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Hacking the Grid: Urban Interventions from Artists from Southeast Asia 

From Lê’s urban intervention in 1990s Ho Chi Minh City we now relocate to 2015 Berlin, and a similar ‘hack’ at a major marketplace that sites this European city as home to some 40,000 Vietnamese residents. The now London-based artist Sung Tieu (b. 1987, Hai Duong, Vietnam) migrated to Germany with her mother at the age of five, having to make the journey on foot through the Czech forest. From the specificities of the German dimensions of the Vietnamese diaspora, the artist has traced broader narratives of displacement, travel, and historiography in her work while specifying lesser known trajectories of recent Vietnamese history.

Germany had hosted several waves of Vietnamese migrants since the 1950s, when the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the German Democratic Republic both belonged to the Socialist bloc. In 1980 the two governments signed an agreement for north Vietnamese to be sent as temporary contract workers to the GDR, filling a German labor shortage while stimulating a flow of migrant remittances to help rebuild the postwar Vietnamese economy. In 1989, while West Germany continued to host and give permanent residence rights to refugees from south Vietnam, whose exodus had escalated after the 1975 communist take-over and unification, the now unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam sent almost 60,000 Vietnamese contract workers to East Germany. However, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989, many Vietnamese in former East Germany lost their worker contracts, and despite the German government’s financial stimulus to repatriate them, many had established Berlin as their home and resolved to stay. Having already opened a niche within the GDR garment industry, many former Vietnamese contract workers improvised new informal and not quite illegal economies and channels of garment and commodity production and exchange. Such routes of appropriation and reproduction are referenced in Tieu’s installation Emotion Refuge (fig. 4), which centers on the signature plaid of a Chinese-manufactured plastic bag known as a laundry bag or refugee bag, depending on context of use, which was then appropriated by high-end designers like Celine. In the 1990s, at the time of the artist’s settlement in Germany, the financial viability of such informal enterprises in Vietnamese communities, alongside the draw of Germany’s economic growth, attracted more Vietnamese migrants who had worked under similar conditions in other areas of Eastern Europe. Many would cross the border illegally, but could then apply for asylum and the limited avenues for permanent residence that were enacted due to the complicated situation of Vietnamese workers and refugees in relation to their domestic status in Vietnam.

Almost twenty years after Le’s 1998 public project Damaged Gene, Tieu enacted a similar strategy of ‘hacking’ public space, this time staged in a major Vietnamese market in Berlin. The Dong Xuan Center was established in 2003 as a major shopping and food center and import/export hub largely run by generations of immigrants from north Vietnam – hence its naming after a celebrated market in Hanoi. For her project Subnational Enterprise, Tieu received consent from the owner of a LED and electronics shop to reprogram its LED screens – typically used to flash shop sign slogans - with scrolling dates and the names of countries in the Soviet-Eastern bloc that signed contract worker and migration agreements (fig. 5). Tieu also fabricated a rebranded counterfeit MP3 player edition preprogrammed with a sound work sampling Vietnamese classical stringed music, the soundscape of the popular department store KaDeWe featuring the artist in dialogue with salespeople, and product-placement lines from movies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s (fig. 6). As a sonic assemblage interweaving auditory impressions of tradition, commerce, media and class, the piece animates a history of Vietnamese migrant entrepreneurship and its ensuing present-day subjectivities. After German reunification, large numbers of the Vietnamese community had had to seek alternative means of subsistence following the end of their worker contracts; such self-organization took the form of small businesses such as flower shops, and temporary market-places in their hostels or in vacant buildings, where they drew on their personal trade networks to ply in-demand goods and brand name reproductions. The spatial strategies and mobilities inherent to the success of such enterprises is one recalled, and to some extent performed, by Subnational MP3. Intended to be worn by the listener while browsing through displays and combing the crowds on a busy Saturday at the Dong Xuan Center, the piece situates the experience within the marketplace’s transnational cultural and historical consciousness, forging a gray area where low-end and high-end, the informal and the formal sectors are blurred.