“We are drawn to these kinds of partnerships. And the most exciting thing is we don’t know all the benefits that partnership will bring, all the possibilities it opens. We recognize a confluence and we’re looking for a synergy, and we know that very often new things are created in collaboration and synthesis, rather than in isolation.”
Those words were spoken by Ian Bickford, Provost of Fulbright University Vietnam, shortly before a groundbreaking joint program with The Factory Contemporary Arts Centre in Ho Chi Minh City, was regrettably delayed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as, like many countries around the world, self-confinement procedures were enforced.
And yet, for Ian, the global disruptions caused by the current health crisis have only further demonstrated the need for tighter bonds in our communities, and the necessity of creating meaning. “Society relies on structures of meaning to cohere. Those don’t come out of nowhere. They come out of the deliberate and painstaking work that artists and educators do to preserve knowledge and culture and to create new knowledge and new expressions of culture. The ways we benefit from that work are often invisible. But they are foundational to the way we experience what’s good in our shared society.
These institutions, individually, have never been more important and the partnerships between them have never been more powerful. We have to exist together, and this project proves Fulbright is committed to not going it alone.”
Fulbright signed an agreement with The Factory, to co-facilitate a 12-month artist fellowship program for five years. Titled “Re-aligning the Cosmos”, each fellowship will provide artistic and academic mentorship to one Vietnamese artist exploring Vietnam’s cultural traditions of respect for the five elements – wood, fire, earth, metal and water – and to reflect on our devotion to or neglect of their symbolic value and meaning, looking at the relationship between culture, the natural world and the environment. Applications are open until April 23, 2020 to Vietnamese artists all over the country, and the selected fellow will be announced in early May, with public programming to begin in early July.
“This partnership is the first of its kind, as a visionary cultural institution and a cutting-edge university redefine, together, the relationship between artists and HCMC universities,” remarks Ian Bickford.
For the selected fellows, this is the opportunity to reflect and gain insights into their own artistic practice. The chosen artist will gain access to expertise, the resources and networks of both institutions, and a deeper form of critical feedback regarding their chosen methodology, subject and desired audience. This is also, for Fulbright and The Factory, an incredible chance to formalize a natural and highly beneficial mutual partnership.
A natural fit
Vo Dang Minh, a student at Fulbright who went to The Factory on multiple occasions, including a private guided tour during the Q1 Visual Culture course, explains the parallel best. “Fulbright is a space dedicated to academic pursuits, with a strong focus on creative and innovative aspects, as well as culture. In every course our expectations are subverted in a way that forces us to think in new ways. And The Factory is a contemporary art space that takes nothing for granted, always questioning and pushing but with a solid academic focus. So both are almost like two sides of a same coin, and it’s amazing that we can talk and exchange ideas, bringing the institutions together.”
For Zoe Butt, Artistic Director at The Factory, there are also affinities with the way Fulbright students approach critical thinking. “The type of students this university attracts, and the training they receive at Fulbright develops a similar culture of inquiry as what The Factory has to offer and tries to foster. On the occasions we have held public programs with engaged, responsive youths, more often than not these were Fulbright students.”
Indeed, part of The Factory’s mandate, also shared by Fulbright, is the desire to nurture a generation of Vietnamese thinkers. As Ian Bickford describes it, “Fulbright is made of the strength that our students bring to us. And The Factory responds to the same brilliance of largely young Vietnamese artists. Both rely on the extraordinary energy and imaginative strength of new and growing Vietnamese intellectuals.”
From confluence to synergy
Fulbright and The Factory have a lot in common, and their shared vision is made stronger by their distinct individual strengths. Fulbright students will benefit greatly from exposure to creatives and new opportunities for academic exchanges, such as critique sessions, talks, or presentations, giving valuable insights into cultural production and analysis.
The benefits are clear to future art majors, such as Nguyen Ngoc Lien: “This will be a great opportunity for me to meet artists and discuss works. Students can benefit a lot from this. Some of the art classes mostly do intense reading and reflections. But being able to talk to artists, especially contemporary artists, will provide us invaluable insights into the process artists go through and their methods to create meaning.”
Le Khanh Ha, who studies at Fulbright, is also very excited about the learning opportunities this relationship offers. “This is a great chance to further enhance our creative environment and culture. The Factory is just as nurturing as Fulbright, with a focus on experiential learning as well. It is art-oriented but multidisciplinary. Everyone here can benefit from this kind of cooperation. It’ s also very special that we will welcome talents from anywhere in the country, who will share their perspectives in a context both academic and creative, generating ideas of unknown potential.”
Beyond the immediate and definitive advantages this level of access to art professionals, cultural workers and academics will offer art majors at Fulbright, a very large group of students who are interested in the arts, but do not intend to specialize, will also benefit from incorporating some of the methods or ideas for themselves. Art, in this sense, is relevant for everyone, especially with the multidisciplinary scope of the program, which involves thinking through humans and their habitats, and communities affected by their environment.
Aaron Anderson, who is responsible for Fulbright’s art department and designed the Visual Culture course, elaborates: “We don’t know yet which artist will be selected. But let’s say they choose Earth as an element. We have engineers here that can talk about sand extraction for example. A computer scientist who would offer a very different perspective on whatever is being produced than what I could. One of the best answers I’ve ever heard to the question ‘why do we need art?’ was given by a chemistry professor here at Fulbright, and relates to the imagination and storytelling power necessary to understand what we cannot see.
We have a faculty enthusiastic about working on things that are out of their comfort zone, and The Factory is continuously working to foster a creative, intellectually forward artistic community. These kinds of trends like ambitious transdisciplinary art practices can only happen when the ecosystem has grown to involve more than one institution, in ways they complement each other.”
“This is the bonus for collaborating with Fulbright,” concludes Zoe. “We gain access to a deeper interdisciplinary body in our city which can provide artists with different ways of thinking. The study of visual arts in Vietnam is unfortunately often relegated to a study of form with very little social application.
This means many artists in Vietnam today do not understand their broader role in the world. And I think that is important to the artistic community. To understand that differing forms of inquiry, from business to architecture to mathematics, also find the visual arts relevant. This is why this partnership is crucial. There is a necessity to lead the way with collaborations that can improve the relevance of artists in society today.
This is our chance to show the impact of successful collaborations that occur between academic and cultural pursuits. We hope to see some of the artists that go through the program, some of the students that participate in our discussions, to go on, into the world, and lead their own initiatives.”