On Possibility — A Conversation with Phuong-Dan
By Mathis Neuhaus
Published in: zweikommasieben Magazin #14
A DJ is a DJ is a DJ — right? While many supplement their practice by producing their own music or releasing that of others, Nguyen Phuong-Dan takes a different approach. After studying cultural anthropology and visual communication in Hamburg, organizing the party series Gatto Musculoso at the Golden Pudel Club and DJing have both become an important part of his professional practice, but he also publishes books, recently completed a documentary film, and is working in various roles for several cultural and art institutions.
On a late-summer afternoon in Hamburg, the conversation wandered between reflections on existence as a DJ, cultural anthropological work, and topics that apply to both categories: reissues, club nights as a concept, and the Golden Pudel as a musical home.
Mathis Neuhaus: You made, among other things, the publication Die Deutschen Vietnamesen [Peperoni Books, 2011]. Can you talk a little bit about your projects outside of DJing?
Nguyen Phuong-Dan: So far I’ve done a total of three publications. The first photo book was made before Die Deutschen Vietnamesen during my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Hamburg. I studied cultural anthropology at the university and visual communication at the academy. At the university I started with documentary film and then came to photography through working on film assembled from photos.
The material used in the first publication was taken in Vietnam and was originally intended for a photo film. After long content-related and formal considerations, the project developed into a book. It is about my ambivalent experience in my parents’ country of origin as a Vietnamese born in Germany – against the backdrop of my childhood of mediated values and ideas, which were partly activated there but often also revoked.
MN: How old are you?
NP: I’m 33 years old. My parents came to Germany in the seventies. Correspondingly, the cultural values brought along by this generation with respect to Vietnam are no longer contemporary. From a distance a picture solidifies. I was concerned with comparing or reconciling, deconstructing, and updating my pre-shaped perspective.
MN: Have you made your conclusions, or is that something you continue to reflect on, even as a DJ?
NP: Those were always two separate realms for me. The interest in questions of origin, migration, and remigration came with my first trip to Vietnam and then intensified later over the course of my studies. The work on the second photo book also required that I take a certain distance from my personal experiences.
Lots of Vietnamese people were living in Germany during the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Many gradually returned to Vietnam, either voluntarily or involuntarily. We – the book was made together with the photographer Stefan Canham – were not only visually interested in how these people are living in Vietnam today; their personal stories in relation to their return to their home country were also important to us, so we also conducted biographical interviews with them. We asked questions like: “What does it mean to return to Vietnam after decades? Where do people see themselves in society? What is daily life like, and where are there conflicts?“ It was very interesting to illuminate immigration from an inverse perspective. There are lots of people who immigrate to Germany, but it’s even more interesting to flip the line of vision.
The third publication was then produced in association with a travel scholarship from Annika Kahrs. I helped her with a film project. The final exhibition also included a catalog and a special edition for which we photographed wedding couples in Vietnam. The themes were individuality and conformity: the couples arrange to be photographed months before the actual celebration in Western wedding clothing, mostly in front of very popular tourist attractions or in open-air photography studios. There are often hundreds of couple in these places at a time. We captured this scenario in rather sober ‘making-of’-style documentation.
MN: Are you interested in maintaining your special combination of professions and perspectives?
NP: Definitely. It’s important to me to stay involved in my various areas of interest. I really like project-oriented work and would resist settling on a single format. My latest finished project, for example, is a scenic documentary film that will appear this year in cinemas. I always try to be conscious of which themes interest me and which format is most suited to an exploration of them. Medium- or longer-term projects offer a welcome balance to the more ephemeral club context.
MN: Do you see your projects as offering chances for cooperation and collaboration?
NP: I find the process of cooperation – in the sense of shared authorshipenormously exciting. This mode has a lot of potential and is also always associated with negotiation. And above all, compromise always plays a role. It’s a little different with music. As a DJ, an evening is shaped according to a certain exchange with the audience, but that’s a result of many solitary hours in an almost egocentric position.
MN: It seems that your focus as a DJ is on what was or used to be. What is your music-finding process like? Do you have routines?
NP: I wouldn’t say it’s entirely true that I’m past-oriented in my DJing. There’s also a lot of contemporary music that interests me – I listen to everything that seems interesting. The spectrum is simply greater than if I were to limit myself to a decade or two. I’m also not just looking for music I think I can play in the club – on the contrary.
I’m basically open to any musical direction, and there are incredibly great things in all genres. For me, certain categories or years of origin aren’t really important. There are of course certain musical approaches, aesthetics, and productions that I like more than others, and many of them are from the past, but the most beautiful moment is the discovery – the moment you find something in a record store you’ve never heard of before.
MN: Do you see yourself as a kind of mediator for obscure music through what you play?
NP: That’s a matter of inside- and outside perspective. A DJ inevitably has a mediating role. Your question was more targeted at left-field music. I don’t see myself as an ambassador for explicitly strange music when compared to other DJs. I like to listen to music that opposes to common patterns, but not exclusively.
In addition to that, a club night is something that’s shared. Communication goes in both directions: the audience and the DJs determine where it’ll go. Musically and aesthetically, what I play is of course sourced from my particular frame of reference – I put on what I personally like and try to create an atmosphere and tell a story over the evening through the music. It’s no longer really about individual pieces of music or directions, but rather about how to relate them to each other and about the mood that ensues as a result. That can accordingly be somewhat esoteric, brittle, and unpredictable.
MN: Gatto Musculoso, your party at Golden Pudel [see zweikommasieben #10], has been happening for ten years now. Was it always the goal of the party to create a space for this type of DJing?
NP: Gatto Musculoso is about a night’s potential, and the idea is very closely related to Pudel itself. The concept came to me when I first sensed the very free, special spirit of the place. It’s an unregulated space. It’s not so important whether the music you put on is strange or catchy – the series is about dissolving conventions and about the will to experiment, and this is more than possible at Golden Pudel, thanks to the club’s philosophy and attitude. And to the very open public, of course.
There are far too few possibilities like this. The Salon des Amateurs in Düsseldorf is one of the few other permanent venues that works similarly. Many people have to make temporary arrangements in other cities, and sometimes only for an evening. I have a lot of respect for that.
MN: Is your approach to nighttime sets different from your approach to podcasts or online mixes?
NP: When making a mix I appreciate the detachment from the club: the possibility to pick quieter things or more dysfunctional music I like to listen to at home, and to tell a story. It’s less fun for me to make more danceable mixes, already just because the recording situation in my apartment is quite absurd. Club sets are situational – they belong to the club and should develop together with the presence and help of an audience.
MN: This is an aspect that also plays an important role in a warm-up – the possibility to test your own record collection again from different angles.
NP: Yeah, definitely. It would be nice if you could awaken more interest for that in the club context and have people deliberately arrive earlier. Not necessarily in the form of a separate floor, but rather as an independent prologue to the night itself. The Pudel, for example, opens at 10 p.m. Usually the people come very late – often first around 2 in the morning.
I really enjoy starting the evening there with music that otherwise remains at home or on podcasts. This is how the idea for the Gatto Musculoso Listening Session came about. My DJ guests and I play new discoveries or favorite pieces in the first couple of hours, and this is also broadcast live on Berlin Community Radio. Little by little, people started coming to the club earlier.
MN: Did you ever have the idea to start a label? We spoke about a focus on the past. There are more and more labels emerging that specialize in reissues. Would you find something like that interesting?
NP: There’s no particular reason for me to start a label – neither for reissues nor for the new ones. Basically it’s a great thing that more and more forgotten, overlooked, or inaccessible music is becoming accessible to a wider audience. Also, the possibility of hearing never-before-released material at all is really wonderful. There are some labels that do very good work – Offen Music or Music From Memory, to name a couple.
I think it’s very important to consider the intentions of label founders. Is there content-related motivation? Or purely economic interests? Some reissues are defined more by exoticism or exclusivity than by musical quality. It’s also problematic when it isn’t about the music itself – when the label is only used as a strategic platform for attracting more attention on other levels. This is followed by the question of how to deal with the artists. If you search for them, are rights-related issues clarified? Does the label also have deeper interests in the artists’ biographies that will help it prepare the material adequately?
MN: OOR Records [a record store in Zurich] is a good example: in the mediation of the records on sale, the biographies of the artists, who are the ones who actually find themselves in the spotlight [again], are given an appropriate space. This helps communicate the traditions or contexts that should be kept in mind when hearing each respective record.
NP: That sounds good! That’s exactly the kind of responsibility that labels should be taking, especially in dealing with older music.
MN: In conclusion: a lot has been written lately about the Golden Pudel situation, and the venue has been very much in the public eye. Do you think that things will continue as they’ve been for the last twenty years, in terms of the ethos, the punk naiveté, the flexibility?
NP: I think the Pudel will continue from within similarly as before. It already had a special reputation before the incident, and yes, it’s gotten more attention because of the circumstances. It’s difficult to say how things will seem after it reopens – to what extent the openness, liveliness, and willfulness will continue. This also depends on the audience, I think: what are the expectations?
In any case, I’m very curious about how the first night and all subsequent nights will go. The Pudel has gone through changes in the past, and every night there has always been unpredictable and individual. After everything that’s happened — the break and the publicity – it will certainly be something different again. This isn’t necessarily negative. People will be able to deal with it. I’m not too worried.