Few weapons share the same global, political, and cultural impact as the AK-47 and the M16 assault rifles. While serving as a symbol of freedom in their respective Soviet and American origins, each also serves as a representation of oppression for either side of the Cold War. While the official geopolitical rivalry was declared over, despite growing tensions in Russia-America diplomacy, these weapons remain embedded in our culture as lasting impressions of liberation and violence – from action films and video games, to news media and state propaganda.
The Propeller Group shares its own history with these rifles; its members, Phunam Thuc Ha, Tuna Andrew Nguyen, and Matt Lucero, are the sons of parents who lived through the Vietnam War. Forging a multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural collective that looked beyond the conflict of their respective nations, the three share a methodological approach to visual artistry, posing larger questions pertaining to culture and the human condition through their multimedia works. In AK-47 vs. M16, The Propeller Group literally pits the two rifles against each other, both in actuality and on-screen, to produce images of beauty and destruction that examine the longstanding rivalry between conflicting ideologies, and the gun culture that follows as a result.
Exhibiting at Singapore Art Museum as a part of Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia, we spoke with the group to learn what prompted their line of enquiry, and what our consumption of guns in media might say about our appetites for violence.
How did the concept of AK-47 vs. M16 come to fruition? Was it born out of pure curiosity, or was there always a larger concept you wished to explore?
There were two things we were fascinated with that eventually came together to become this project. First, we had been fascinated with the AK-47 and how it became a symbol of the ‘revolution’, and how after being an icon for the revolution it eventually became the symbol of terror or anything anti-American (depending on the point of view you are looking at it from). The M16 goes hand-in-hand with the AK-47, in that the latter was designed as a response to the former. These two rifles have been pitted against each other physically as well as symbolically for decades.
The other phenomena we were looking at was two bullets that collided and merged into one object on the battlefield of the American Civil War. For this to happen, even in traditional warfare where both sides just lined up and shot at each other, is almost impossible. So, this fused bullet created by opposing shooters is quite a conceptually loaded object. Our idea was to create a similar object and a ‘re-enactment’, so to speak, of that very short-lived historical event but using current weapons of destruction – weapons like the AK-47 and the M16 that have had so much effect on our contemporary generations.
As individuals who grew up during the Vietnam War, did these rifles play a vivid part in forming childhood memories or experiences?
Most members of The Propeller Group were actually too young to have had actual memories or interactions with these assault rifles. Most of our memories are from stories told by fathers and uncles in the war, and probably a lot more memories were from watching action films growing up in the ’80s.
What was the experience like in actually getting the bullets to collide?
There was a lot of research and trial-and-error in the process. Even though we were working with ballistics experts, about 80 per cent of the entire process was trial-and-error and failure. We knew that, going into the project, everything was a question mark and we understood that the chances of success were slim. So the entire process, from the research stage to the exhibition stage, had us continually on the edge of our seats. So much time and effort from so many people made the project possible – but knowing that if it wasn’t realised, it would’ve been heartbreaking, and that added a lot of pressure to the entire project.
“We’ve created a vicious cycle of demanding drama, supplying trauma, exploiting sorrow and demanding it all over again.”
AK-47 vs. M16 presents a duality, one in which there is both beauty and destruction. What was the discussion you hoped to promote with this work?
In most of our work, we like to unpack phenomena that carry inherent sets of contradiction that exist in the violence our world continually engages in. This not only includes political violence and military violence, but also extends to the violence of how we see and how we consume images and narratives via media and history. There’s a certain kind of violence in how media and history force feed us certain images and narratives in an attempt to determine how we see. So, ultimately – this work specifically, but also our other work in general – hopes to destabilise people’s belief systems, even if for a second, to open up possibilities of an alternative understanding or way of looking.
How does the message of the sculpture differ from that of AK-47 vs. M16, The Film? What do you hope viewers to take away from each?
We realised very early in the project that it would be impossible to tackle such a topic with only one approach. The sculptures and the feature film were envisioned and designed to operate on two parallel planes. The sculptures were intended to be quiet, minimal and thought-provoking in a reflective way – silently sublime. There is a meditative quality to the work. It references the body, possibly even the sterile environment of surgery, the silence after immense trauma.
The feature film was designed to work in opposition to the sculptures. The film exaggerates the violence and the tense political relationship between these ‘objects’ as seen through the mechanisms that reiterate and distribute its image and its mythology. It’s loud, violent, overwhelming and intense.
How did these works make you reflect on your own attitudes towards gun culture?
As people who somewhat have a foot in American culture, I think we are constantly reflecting on the traumas produced from gun culture. We, as a global culture, are always shocked and shattered when news of gun violence breaks… but we are never really surprised. This kind of violence has happened and has continued to happen for decades, even generations – and we, as a community of local and global citizens, have not been able to face the reality that we are not doing much to prevent these things from continuing to happen.
Gun control has once again become a hot button issue in the US following the recent Stoneman Douglas school shooting in Parkland, Florida. What character would you assign to the AR-15, which has been used in six of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in America over the past decade, including Stoneman Douglas? How do you think you might present this weapon in a similar fashion to the AK-47 vs. M16 project?
Well, the AR-15 is the successor to the M-16… they come from the same design lineage. Actually, the precursor to the M16 was also known as the Armalite AR-15. The current AR-15 was the next step in the design evolution of the M16, so they could almost be synonymous.
There were a few clips in the feature film where we used footage from the ballistics team that we worked with, that had bullets flying in slow motion into each of the rifles. After the project was complete, we were faced with the question of what to do with the them. We didn’t want to keep them, and we also didn’t want them back on the market, so we asked the ballistics engineers to destroy the weapons and film it for us to use in the feature film. There was actual footage of the AK-47 shooting at and destroying the M16 and vice versa – a ‘versus’ situation resulting in the rifles literally destroying themselves. So, the AR-15 in our minds wouldn’t be presented drastically different than how we’ve presented its predecessor the M16.
Why do you think the entertainment industry has such a fascination with guns? Is it a matter of consumer demand?
Consumer demand is such a broad idea that it becomes too abstract when we consider it as a cause for anything, because in this idea of consumer demand, how do we consider such instances as the consumer also being a producer and the relationship between those roles? We, in general, are consumers as well as producers of death, trauma, and drama. We are all embedded in a capitalist system where profit is seen as the end goal. So, between these two phenomena that are so entrenched in our society, we’ve created a vicious cycle of demanding drama, supplying trauma, exploiting sorrow and demanding it all over again…
Despite the fact that there’s little evidence to link fictional violence with real violence, do you think content makers – whether it be Hollywood, game developers, or artists such as yourselves – have a responsibility when it comes to depicting violence and the weapons that cause it?
We believe that there’s a violence in how we see and how we choose not to see. There is a violence in the way we voraciously consume images without thought and consideration. If anything, as consumers, we have a responsibility to ourselves to be weary of how images affect us and our communities. It would be difficult for us to say that cultural producers and content makers must have a responsibility to anybody but themselves. Censorship is not the answer. How is one’s responsibility gauged and how is the success of their responsibility evaluated?
Speaking from our own point of view as artists, we would be extremely suspicious of entities that pressure us to think a certain way or produce a certain kind of art work, or place on us the responsibility of any kind of morality to any kind of public or general audience. That has been the work of propaganda, advertising, politics, religion and so on and so forth, but should never be the role that art occupies. That having been said, we are also people who believe in compassion and can only hope that cultural producers can consider ‘audiences’ beyond sources of profit, but as sources of compassion and compassionate action.
The Propeller Group’s works are currently on exhibit at Singapore Art Museum as part of Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia, running until March 25, 2018. Find out more at bit.ly/SAMLateNightsMar2018.